Carbs & Fats: The Good, The Bad, and The Truth.

Everywhere you look, there seems to be nutrition advice, research, facts, and opinions. Whether you’re seeking to better understand carbohydrates, fats, or both…Which are good for you? Which are bad for you? Which will best serve your wellness goals?... The amount of information out there can be overwhelming, sometimes conflicting, and many times leaves us to wonder, “What is the truth?”

Let’s start with carbohydrates. This macronutrient seems to be the most abused and discussed nutrient in the news media in all mediums, usually in a sensationalized and incorrect manner.  One day you read, “carbs are bad for you.”  The very next day you read that “carbs are good for you.”  Before we begin labeling which foods are “good” or “bad”, let’s break it down further.

The definition of carbohydrates is “chemical compounds composed of single or multiple units of sugar.”  A complex carb has long or multiple chains of sugars arranged to form starch or fiber.  Examples of complex carbs are rice, pasta, potatoes, beans, and grain products.

Fiber is also a complex carb. However, its chemical arrangement is very different, creating a bond that can not be broken by the human digestive system of enzymes preventing this nutrient from being absorbed in our blood.  Fiber provides zero calories, and is passed through the body along with wastes.  Fiber is a crucial nutrient our body needs to function in a healthy manner.  Both complex and simple carbs provide fiber, except foods whose total sugars are added sugars.

Simple carbs are “created as single sugar units.”  Examples of simple carbs are non-starchy vegetables, fruits and milk products. Simple sugars are also found in all processed sweet foods and drinks as ‘added sugars.’ Regardless of what form the carbs exist in any food, they contain the same caloric count (4 calories per gram).

So, what is the real difference between the two?

1)The majority of our carbohydrate intake should be complex carbs because their sugars take a longer time to breakdown and enter our blood stream.  The result is a steady, gradual supple of calories (energy), avoiding a spike of blood glucose (sugar) in our blood.

2)Simple carbs which are found in fruits, non-starchy veggies and dairy products, and PARTICULARLY the processed foods and drinks with added sugars have a tendency to enter the blood system quicker.  However, the natural sugars, but not the added sugars foods provide the body a plethora of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. 

If we were to label any carbs “bad,” we would look toward processed foods and drinks, typically sweetened by added sugars. Processed foods/drinks provide (empty) calories that create a spike with the blood glucose in our blood stream. The spike signals a need for insulin to remove the spike of sugar, but can cause the sugar levels to be too low.  When the sugar levels are too low, a hunger for the sugar returns. We typically satisfy the sugar need with more processed foods. This cycle of highs and lows often results in consumption of excessive calories, contributing to our growing obesity epidemic.  The calories from these sweet, processed foods are referred to as empty calories because the food usually does not offer any other nutrients. 

Since a nutritional label on a food package combines natural and added sugars into a single line, it’s not always easy for a consumer to distinguish if the total sugars are natural or added sugars.  Read the ingredient list to determine if the food contains added sugars.  It’s also important to note that some added sugars hide under other names on food labels: corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, high-fruit corn syrup, honey, molasses, dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, agave syrup, and evaporated cane juice.  

In conclusion, instead of believing that “carbs are bad” - understanding the differences and being mindful of those ADDED SUGARS will set us up for success.  

Now, onto another popular debate: good fats, bad fats. Before we review the differences with fat types, we need to understand that ALL fats, good or bad, provide 9 calories/gram; compare those calories with the other two macro-nutrients of protein that offer 4 calories/gram and carbs also with 4 calories/gram. It should be easy to realize a diet that includes excessive quantities of fat can discourage a healthy body weight.  Therefore, the majority of our diet should be comprised of the good fats when we consume foods that have fats.  

Most often when a fat is labeled “good” or “bad”, the association concerns our cardiovascular system and heart health - specifically our blood levels of HDL (the good cholesterol; remember H with honorable), LDL (the bad cholesterol, remember L with lousy), total cholesterol, and triglycerides (fatty substances always present in our blood).  

The “bad fats” are the saturated and trans fats.   Saturated fats are found in butter, cheese, red meats (yes, pork is also a red meat!) and other animal products.  Trans fats are mostly man-made with an industrial process that adds hydrogen molecules to vegetable oils; this processed fat gives foods a desirable taste and texture.  Trans fats appear in many foods including fried foods (i.e.: french fries or doughnuts), most baked goods, biscuits, crackers, frozen pizza, stick margarine, and many more.  Before eating a food, it’s recommended that consumers read the nutrition label to check on types of fats included.  Negative heart health issues caused by bad fats include an increase in total cholesterol and LDL, while the trans fats also decrease the HDL.  These cholesterol changes with HDL and LDL increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The “good fats” are monounsaturated fats found in canola oils, nuts, and olive oils, and polyunsaturated fats that are high in corn oil, safflower oils, soybean oil, sesame oil, and sunflower oils.  These types of fats are labeled as good fats because they decrease total cholesterol and the LDL and increase our HDL. One exception with the polyunsaturated oils is their tendency to decrease the HDL. Within the broad classification of polyunsaturated fats, we also have a specific group of fats termed essential fats: omega-3 and omega- 6.  In particular, research supports omega-3’s healthy reputation; these fatty acids help to thin blood and prevent blood platelets from clotting and sticking to our artery walls, which reduces the risks of strokes and heart attacks.  Omega-3 is found in cold water fishes, flaxseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil, and walnuts.

With the good and the bad carbs, and fats or any foods that we want to know the facts about, all of us can influence our health everyday by our diet selection and by educating ourselves about foods with articles from RELIABLE sources.  The news media in general and the internet sites as a whole can provide conflicting facts relating to healthy eating, diet and nutrition. These web sources can be trusted to educate with facts: www.mayoclinic.org, www.caloriedatabase.com, www.ars.gov

There are many more reliable sites, but always use wisdom with your selections. 

Written by: Art Bernabo, certified personal trainer and fitness instructor at the South County Family YMCA

All opinions expressed here are those of their authors and/or contributors and not of their employer.
Any questions or concerns regarding the content found here may be sent to info@gwrymca.org.