I might raise a few eyebrows by saying this, but my answer is “none”… unless we’re talking in relative terms within the context of a specific goal one is trying to achieve – whether that goal is better health, fat loss, increased energy, etc…
But generally speaking, carbohydrates are energy for the body. In fact, they’re the most efficient form of energy for the body to use among the three macro nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
That’s the problem with health and fitness; too many “experts” use assertions in a general context that they should only apply within a specific one. I’m reminded of a claim I saw recently in which a nutrition expert was commenting on how “bad” protein bars and other processed foods are. She said that the body doesn’t recognize these as food because there are too many chemicals in them. The question I’d love to ask her is this:
“So if you were lost in the wilderness for weeks and near death from starvation – what would you do if you ran across a case of fully-wrapped Met-RX protein bars? Would you eat them? If so – would your body ‘recognize’ them as food?”
Well, “duh”… I’d assume she’d eat them and I’d guess the damned things would keep her alive. And I guess that means the body “recognizes” them as food. But maybe I’m just a simpleton. On to the topic at hand:
“What carbs are bad?”
"What carbs are bad?" Personally, I don't consider any of them "bad." I just eat the type like the one pictured above... infrequently.
It depends on what you’re trying to do with your body and how different amounts of various types of carbohydrates affect your goal. For example, if you’re extremely overweight and you want to lose a substantial amount of body fat, high glycemic carbohydrate foods should be minimized so that blood sugar levels can be reduced and stabilized as much as possible. However, if you don’t need to lose body fat and you’re shooting for more muscle mass, a few high glycemic carbohydrates before and after a bodybuilding workout might be beneficial.
Let’s break the question “what are good carbs/what are bad carbs?” down to the basic definitions:
Complex Carbs = “Good” Carbohydrates
These are found in high fiber grains, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. They are typically low on the glycemic index which means their energy is released slowly into the bloods stream. This keeps blood sugar levels lower.
Refined Carbs = “Bad” Carbohydrates
White flour and simple sugars are the biggest culprits here. Processed and refined carbohydrates are digested quickly and typically cause spikes and valleys in blood sugar levels.
Calories from Carbohydrates
Many of us think of “good carbohydrates” as being carbs that are low in calories while “bad carbohydrates” are carbs that are high in calories. However, all carbohydrates have about four calories per gram of weight. The key difference is the speed at which these different types of carbohydrates are absorbed into the blood stream and the overall carbohydrate content of each specific food item. Obviously, the more carbohydrate grams a food item possesses – the less of it you can eat without inadvertently gorging yourself with excess calories. In addition, the faster the particular carbohydrate is absorbed into the blood stream (glycemic index) – the more insulin is released by the pancreas and the more “roller-coaster effect” you’ll have on your blood sugar and hour-by-hour hunger levels.
Spiking Blood Sugar = hint to “What are Bad Carbs?”
Spiking our blood sugar with high glycemic carbohydrates on a regular basis is a common cause of ravenous eating due to the up-and-down movement of blood sugar levels throughout the day. The typically denser content of carbohydrate (and thus, higher calories) in these foods as well as the tendency they cause in overeating are the reason they’re commonly labeled ‘bad carbs.’ Too many and prolonged eating of these kinds of foods sometimes leads to “insulin resistance”; a condition whereby the cells of the body are no longer responsive to a normal amount of insulin and need higher releases of it to respond and function as they should.
But the main thing to remember is this: Stable blood sugar levels are good for fat loss and long-term health while fluctuating blood sugar levels are antagonistic to fat loss and long-term health.
Processed vs. Unprocessed – or at least… ‘Less Processed’
So I’m sitting here with a bag of white rice in one hand and a bag of brown rice in the other. This seems as good an example as any to juxtapose a heavily processed carbohydrate (white rice) with its less processed counterpart (brown rice).
Now, as far as tantalizing one’s taste buds, the white rice has my vote hands-down. It just has a discernibly sweeter flavor that brown rice lacks. Thus, it might require a retraining of the taste buds in some people to think otherwise and reach for the brown rice instead of the white rice if rice is a staple in their diets.
A quarter cup of the white rice that I’m looking at lists 44 grams of carbohydrate and 200 calories. The same amount of the brown rice lists 35 grams of carbohydrate and 170 calories. A typical glycemic index list will have the white rice somewhere around 65 and the brown rice around 55. Remember, the lower the number on this list, the more slowly the carbohydrate is absorbed by the body. The higher the number… well, that’s just one more mark against that food item which puts it in the ‘what are bad carbs’ category.
So, a long stretch of time eating brown rice will probably have you leaner and healthier than the same stretch of time eating the exact same quantities of white rice. But what makes the difference? What is the “processing” that makes white rice a less health-promoting carbohydrate than brown rice?
White rice is simply brown rice with the fibrous bran removed. The fiber in this bran slows down the digestion of the carbohydrate while also containing a lot of the valuable vitamins and minerals available in rice. This “whole grain” that’s removed from brown rice to create white rice is what makes an equal amount (by weight) of brown rice contain less carbohydrate (and thus, fewer calories) than white rice. Conversely speaking, it takes more of the fiber-absent pure carbohydrate of the white rice to equal a serving (in weight) of the fiber-rich, whole grains of the brown rice.
Add to this the real possibility that the whole grains in the brown rice are apt to satiate you faster while requiring fewer calories to create this satiation and you have even better chances of losing fat with this simple food choice exchange.
‘The Glycemic Index’: Only a Part in the Greater Whole
Why is the glycemic index of foods so confusing in the “what are bad carbs” question?
The reason is that it only tells us some “chunked down” information within a context that has many and sometimes competing variables. For example, the ‘glycemic load’ of entire meals might be more important in the long run than the glycemic index of each food item contained in those meals. In addition, high glycemic carbs are typically high in calories, yet many low glycemic foods (such as ice cream) are high in calories as well. This makes adherence to simply watching the ‘calories in/calories burned’ equation more important to long-term health and leanness than meticulous reading a glycemic index chart.
In short: The glycemic index should be used as a tool to raise one’s awareness of ‘what are bad carbs’ and which are the better choices based on one’s goals. It doesn’t provide the whole picture.
If there’s one easy concept to remember when in the grocery store and trying to decipher ‘what are bad carbs’ and what are their ‘better choice’ counterparts, it’s this:
The farther the carbohydrate food is from its natural “out-of-the-ground” state, the more it falls under the category of “bad carbs” within the context of getting leaner and healthier. In other words, the more someone’s done with it in terms of processing (like the white rice in the example above), the less health and leanness-promoting it is.