There are a lot of carbohydrates out there. Hordes of them in fact. One can hardly walk down the street without being accosted by a carbohydrate. Cupcake truck! Bagel place! Pasta palace! Fruit truck! With all of the conflicting information floating around on carbs, it can be hard to parse out whether carbs are good, bad, or somewhere in between.
The answer (not surprisingly) is that it depends. Dietarily, carbohydrates come in many different forms, from pure sugar to starchy potatoes, to leafy green vegetables, all of which have different dietary impact.
If you’ve read my practical primer on insulin, you know that most of the issues with dietary carbohydrates come from the insulin spikes they tend to cause, which can result in everything from fat storage to arterial hardening. Luckily, different carb sources result in different insulin responses. By selecting the right kinds of carbohydrates for our goals, we can minimize the impact of these spikes and even use them to our benefit.
Most of the differences in insulin response come from the speed of digestion and total carbohydrate content of a serving of a given food. Carbohydrate sources that digest very slowly cause much more moderate changes in blood sugar, which result in correspondingly smaller insulin responses.
In general, carbohydrates that are more highly refined or that are closer to pure sugar result in higher blood sugar and insulin responses. We call these “simple” carbs. Carbohydrates that are less refined, less dense, and take longer to digest are called “complex.” There is not binary distinction between simple and complex; it’s very much a spectrum. So where to different carbs fall on the spectrum? Here’s quick rundown from most complex to least complex (approximately):
Leafy green vegetables (spinach, lettuce, kale, other greens)
Other vegetables (not including starches like potatoes)
Berries, grapefruit, apples
Sprouted grain products
Most cold cereal
Fruit juice cocktails
The types of carbs you should be consuming depends greatly on your physique and athletic goals, as well as your individual tolerance for carbohydrates. If your primary goal is to decrease body fat, stick to the most complex carbs – those in the top group above. If your primary goal is to build muscle mass, the top two groups are your sweet spot (the third group as well, if you are very carb tolerant or very skinny…). High performing endurance athletes – such as cyclists, distance runners, triathletes, and those involved in high endurance team sports – should do fine in the top 3 groups. The bottom group, unfortunately, is never a good idea from a health and fitness standpoint.
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