We’ve all heard that adopting a low-carb diet can have substantial health benefits, but making the change can be difficult. It’s not all about sugary soda and candy bars. Carbohydrates are not only necessary to fuel our bodies; they can also be found in foods that we have previously considered to be part of a healthy diet. Foods like whole wheat bread, milk, and even apples (keeps the doctor away, huh?) are carb-ridden. So how do we know what should go and what should stay in a low-carb diet? Moreover, what is a carb? Understanding the difference between unhealthy and healthy carbs can help us to make more informed decisions about our low-carb diet.
What is a carb?
The fundamental break down is that there are both simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates include Monosaccharides and Disaccharides, which are simple sugars in the form of single and double molecule chains. These simple carbohydrates include glucose, fructose, and other common sugars. Carbohydrates provide us with the energy we need to function. However, before they’re done fueling our bodies, they must go through the digestion process. An essential difference between the two main types of Carbohydrates is the way the body digests them.
While they’re both carbohydrates (polysaccharides to be specific) made of glucose molecules, fiber and starch take different paths in our bodies. The glucose molecules in starches are joined together by alpha linkages, which can be readily cleaved and released into your bloodstream. Whereas in fiber, the monosaccharides are joined together by stronger beta bonds which the body cannot break down. These fibrous chains can often trap some starches within themselves, keeping them from being easily broken and quickly releasing glucose into the bloodstream. These starches are commonly referred to as resistant starches.
The quick surge of glucose into the bloodstream that accompanies high starch foods such as white bread, soda, or crackers earns them a high score on the glycemic index, making them dangerous. However, foods high in fiber (though they may still contain carbohydrates) slow the release of glucose into the blood and thus are lower on the glycemic index. Increased insulin resistance may lead to health issues such as Diabetes and metabolic syndrome. 32% of the population in the US has Metabolic Syndrome. This syndrome puts Americans at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. For those of us concerned with insulin resistance should include more healthy carbs such as fiber in a low-carb diet.
Generally, a good rule of thumb is to opt for naturally occurring carbohydrates, which are accompanied by high levels of fiber. A helpful way to make decisions about which carbs to include in your low-carb diet is to consider the food’s “net carbs.” While this is not a term regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, it can still serve as a helpful tool. To determine the net carbs of a product, you subtract the fiber content as well as the sugar alcohol content from the total carbohydrates. For example, a slice of Sola Golden Wheat bread contains 7g carbs – 4g of dietary fiber with a net carb intake of 3g. Foods such as whole grains, steel cut oats, fruit, legumes, dry beans, and sweet potatoes are all foods which contain complex carbohydrates, and when eaten in moderation, can be a healthy part of a low-carb diet.