For most of us, our relationship with food is a rather intimate one. There are times in our lives when food comforts us, makes us feel loved, or makes us giddy with pleasure. But it’s also possible that some of our favorite foods would not be considered good for us. Understanding why that might be true can help us learn to love healthier foods that fully nourish both our souls and our bodies. This is particularly true of carbohydrates, a vast and important food group that can be difficult for women to negotiate.

A few years ago, the phrase “good carb, bad carb” became popular in nutrition circles, largely due to the publication of a book under this name. These buzz words have had the unfortunate effect of implying that women themselves are good if they choose a “good” carb like fruit, or bad if they choose a “bad” carb like cake. The truth is that most foods have something to offer us, and a piece of cake just might be “good for you” at a certain moment because it provides comfort, familiarity, or pure satisfaction. And enjoying a traditional sweet during the holidays is harmless enough, unless special occasions become an excuse to overindulge.

Carbohydrates cannot be systematically divided into white hats and bad hats. The carbohydrate spectrum is a wide one — containing foods as diverse as green beans and high-fructose corn syrup! The spectrum is so wide because some carbohydrate foods are so much more nutritious than others. Understanding how different carbohydrates break down in the body is not only helpful in preventing insulin resistance and managing your weight, but can also help you optimize the effects of the food you eat and limit sugar cravings.

What is a carbohydrate, anyway?

You may think that all carbohydrates are starchy and sweet, but in fact, there are carbs in many types of food, including grains, fruits, vegetables, and sweets. As the word itself suggests, carbohydrates contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Their basic function is to fuel our bodies’ energy needs. Carbs are fundamental nourishment for humans, and the brain is especially dependent on a steady supply of the glucose (simple sugar) we get from carbohydrates. In fact, brain cells can only use glucose to create the energy needed for brain function.

Instead of the either-or thinking of “good carb-bad carb,” let’s talk about carbs in more graduated terms: “refined” or “complex.” (In biochemistry, they’re classified according to how big their molecules are and how soluble they are — see Table 1.) Descriptions reflecting a spectrum rather than distinct groups are more useful because many foods fall somewhere in the middle range.

As a rule of thumb, the more fiber, micronutrients, and macronutrients your carb choice contains, the better it is for you. More stuff, or “information,” makes it a more complex carb; less stuff means it’s a refined, or simpler, carb. Refined carbs break down easily and are quickly transformed into the simple sugar glucose, so they give us a quick burst in blood sugar, causing sharp insulin spikes. Complex carbs take longer to break down and produce a more moderated insulin surge and gradual decline.

As their name implies, refined carbs are the result of processing carbohydrates into a different form — one that often has a powerful effect on the body. White sugar and white flour, for example, are refined carbs found in cookies, pasta, and white bread. These carbohydrates have developed a negative reputation for several reasons:

  • They are metabolized quickly and lead to insulin spikes in the body. Foods that contain them tend to include very high amounts, so the insulin spike is generally fairly sharp. Continual high spikes in blood sugar and insulin can damage metabolism, contribute to insulin resistance, and, as most of us know already, cause weight gain.
  • Refined carbohydrates are considered by some practitioners to be addictive because eating them generates an immediate and measurable spike in serotonin, the chemical neurotransmitter in the brain responsible for mood, appetite, and some behaviors.
  • In the refining process, complex carbohydrates are stripped down to their most basic components, so they no longer contain micronutrients we need for healthy day-to-day cellular function — they’re missing the nutrient “information” your body needs. Apart from what they’re missing, baked goods, breads, soda and other sweets made with refined carbohydrates often do contain unhealthy additives like high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats.
  • Refined carbs can “spoil your appetite.” Whether it’s a supersized box of jujubes at the movies or drinks during a prolonged cocktail hour, refined carbs are generally sky-high in calories, so they tend to displace more nourishing foods in the diet.

At the other end of the spectrum are complex carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. Complex carbohydrates enhance our health in the following ways:

  • They are typically rich in both fiber and micronutrients, offering real nutrition that the body needs to function.
  • This added nutrition takes longer to digest, and the slower break-down process helps maintain healthier insulin and blood sugar levels, keeping moods on a more even keel and diminishing risk for insulin resistance.
  • The slower rate of absorption of the sugars they provide means we have a steadier supply of energy and results in less sugar being converted into storage forms in the liver and as fat.
  • Slow-acting, complex carbohydrates also satisfy hunger better and for longer periods, limiting the dramatic peaks and troughs — and the vicious cycle of cravings — we experience with simple carbohydrates.
What do glycemic index and glycemic load have to do with it?

The effects of carbohydrates on the body are factored into what’s known as their glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index is a scale that ranks foods numerically according to their potential for increasing blood sugar (blood glucose) and insulin levels. Those foods with a high GI increase blood sugar rapidly, while those with a low GI increase blood sugar more slowly.

While this measurement gives you a preliminary sense of the impact a certain food might have on your system, the more important — and more practical — number can be found in the glycemic load (GL) of a food. Glycemic index calculates how quickly the carbs in a particular food are converted into sugar in the blood, whereas the glycemic load factors serving size into the equation, as well as protein and fat content, to give you a better sense of how much sugar your cells will likely take in, and how fast, when you eat that food.

This is an important distinction, because there is no one-to-one correlation between the amount of carbohydrate in a food and its effect on blood sugar and insulin levels. In other words, the glycemic load is more of a qualitative than a quantitative measurement: it rates not just how much carbohydrate is present in the food, but also what kind of carbohydrate you’re eating, as well as how much of it you consume.

To give you a general idea, carrots and plain macaroni have the same GI, but they don’t have the same GL. The macaroni contains mainly refined starchy carbohydrates that break down quickly in the body, while carrots have complex carbs that break down slowly — as well as a higher fiber content, which also affects how quickly the carbs break down. (They’re also rich in vitamins and antioxidants, unlike white macaroni.) So although you can eat portions of both foods that contain the same amount of carbs, you won’t get an identical release of insulin — carrots just don’t break down as quickly as macaroni, so the body isn’t flooded with glucose.

As noted above, quick breakdown of carbs means a more rapid influx of glucose into the bloodstream, which in turn sends insulin spiking upwards. The higher and more often insulin spikes, the more likely your cells are to become resistant to its action. In short, the higher the glycemic load of a food, the greater the tendency for that food to cause insulin spikes and to potentially affect your metabolism.

To learn more about the differences between these two nutritional tools, see our page on the glycemic index and glycemic load. As a dietary rule of thumb, it is far more useful to gain a sense of the glycemic load of different foods in order to make realistic choices about what and when you plan to eat, and how those choices affect your insulin response.

Mendosa, D. 2008. Glycemic index and glycemic load. URL: http://www.mendosa.com/gilists.htm (accessed 11.13.2008).

Mendosa, D. 2003. Glycemic values of common American foods. URL: http://www.mendosa.com/common_foods.htm (accessed 11.13.2008).

Making good carbohydrate decisions

Many women might think it’s best to simply cut out all carbohydrates, but such a radical maneuver isn’t necessary — and it isn’t healthy, either. We all need carbohydrates to maintain wellness and fuel brain function. We recommend choosing carbs that will satisfy your hunger and desire to eat something tasty while giving your body the nutrition it needs.

Here’s a basic chart to give you some idea about foods that have a quick effect on blood sugar versus those that are gentler on your metabolism. Remember, this is just to give you a rough idea; in reality there are dozens of factors influencing their effect. As a general rule, we always advocate for the foods that are the least processed and the most naturally rich in nutrients. When selecting carbs, note that portion size does matter. You can eat generous amounts of slower-acting carbs — especially wonderful when you are concerned about satisfying hunger for longer periods — or smaller amounts of fast-acting carbs, particularly if you just want a taste of something sweet.

Fast-acting carbohydratesIntermediate-acting carbohydratesSlower-acting carbohydrates
Cookies
Cakes
White bread
White pasta
Sugar cereals
Juice
Alcohol
Fruits
White potatoes
Sweet potatoes
Carrots
Beets
Winter squash
Whole brown rice
Quinoa
Millet
Sprouted grains
Other whole grains
Milk
Nuts

At Women's Health Network, we encourage women to follow the “85-15 guideline.” This means maintaining a nutritious and balanced diet 85% of the time. The other 15% is up to you. When and if you do decide to indulge — which we all deserve from time to time — follow these tips to prevent the “carb crash” many women experience after eating too many sweets.

  • Pair your treat with some protein and a little fat. Eating some nuts with your cookies, or a piece of cheese or some other protein, will slow down digestion and lower the insulin spike.
  • Choose cookies or cakes that already contain whole grains and nuts. This makes pairing your sweet with protein easy! You might also consider flourless recipes for baking, some of which are traditional in other countries. They’re still delicious but, unlike most cakes and cookies, don’t call for flour.
  • Go for dark chocolate (preferably 60% cacao or higher). Dark chocolate typically contains less sugar and provides lots of antioxidants too.
  • Take your time. If you are treating yourself, take the time to enjoy the experience! Become aware of your sweet’s appearance, its aroma, and its taste and texture on your tongue. We are all likely to be more satisfied when we slow down and become more aware of the sensual joys of eating.
  • Have a tall drink of water or mineral water with a slice of lime or lemon before and after your treat — especially if it’s a celebratory libation! There’s a lot of wisdom in the adage, “Mix some water with your wine.” Quenching your thirst can be surprisingly satisfying — you may even find that your carb cravings abate or disappear.
  • Remember, if you’re insulin resistant, a little goes a long way! You may have trouble with any kind of carb, so choose wisely and enjoy fully.

Don’t let carbohydrates get you down

Learning some basics about carbohydrates will allow you to make informed decisions not just on ordinary days, but the next time you’re at that holiday party or birthday celebration, so you don’t end up feeling guilty or deprived.

The take-home message is that your body needs the information contained in complex carbs to maintain health and to regain insulin sensitivity. Without that information, you may be creating conditions that accelerate disease processes. Complex carbohydrates usually contain macronutrients like protein and healthy fats, plus essential micronutrients that are key players in maintaining a healthy metabolism. They offer the slow-burning fuel that allows you to feel sated, and help your body regulate insulin production and release.

Simple carbohydrates have been labeled “bad” because of the way the body metabolizes them. But that doesn’t mean you are bad for eating them! These treats are desirable for a reason, and depending on our circumstances, we have to make the decision that’s right for us in the moment. It’s true, too much sugar on a regular basis can cause rollercoaster moods and energy “crashes” that can spin you into a vicious cycle of hard-to-manage cravings. But it’s always best to strive for balance. So by all means, treat yourself every now and then, but don’t let carbohydrates get you down!

References

1 [No author listed.] 200_. The human brain. URL: http://www.fi.edu/learn/brain/carbs.html (accessed 11.19.2008).

2 Barclay, A., et al. 2008. Glycemic index, glycemic load, and chronic disease risk — a meta-analysis of observational studies. Am. J. Clin. Nutr., 87 (3), 627–637. URL (abstract): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18326601 (accessed 09.26.2008).

See also:

Mendosa, D. 2008. Glycemic index and glycemic load. URL: http://www.mendosa.com/gilists.htm (accessed 11.13.2008).

Mendosa, D. 2003. Glycemic values of common American foods. URL: http://www.mendosa.com/common_foods.htm (accessed 11.13.2008).

3 Liang, B. 2003. Biomolecules — the carbohydrates. URL: http://www.wisc-online.com/objects/index_tj.asp?objID=AP13104 (accessed 10.01.2008).