How to Choose Carbohydrates

True or false: A carb is a carb is a carb. If you answered "true," you might think all carbohydrate-containing foods are created equal because they all break down into glucose. But they're not all the same. Some carb foods are better for you than others. Knowing how to make better carbohydrate choices means you'll be eating healthier and are likely to have more energy and find it easier to lose weight.

When choosing carbs, it's particularly important to keep in mind the distinction between simple and complex carbs. Simple carbs are digested more quickly and raise blood sugar levels faster and more dramatically. Complex carbs, on the other hand, take the digestive system longer to break down, and so they enter the bloodstream more slowly, raising blood sugar levels gradually. In this article, we will teach how to choose the carbs that are right for you. It's not just a matter of counting carbs, you have to know the good carbs from the bad carbs. Let's begin by looking at how carbohydrates affect weight gain.

Carbs and Weight Gain

carbs and weight gain
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Carbohydrates can greatly affect
weight gain.

Why should you care whether your blood sugar remains steady or has some peaks and valleys? After all, there are all kinds of bodily processes that we remain blissfully unaware of.

There are lots of reasons to be concerned and aware of blood sugar levels. But since the vast majority of us today are looking for weight-loss strategies that work, let's first take a look at the role carbohydrate plays in weight gain and weight loss.

Remember, carbohydrate foods contain sugar, starch, and fiber in various amounts. Simple carbohydrates (such as table sugar and apple juice) only contain sugar, while complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains) contain starch and fiber.

You probably don't realize it, but a rapid rise in blood sugar, which is the result of eating a highly refined carbohydrate food, can be a key factor in binge eating and weight gain. Eating any type of carbohydrate food triggers the release of insulin to clear the excess glucose from the bloodstream. But eating a highly refined carbohydrate, particularly a substantial portion of white pasta or a large bagel, can cause the pancreas to pump out even greater amounts of insulin to help restore normal blood sugar levels. If the insulin clears the glucose too quickly, blood sugar levels plummet. When blood sugar levels drop precipitously, the stomach and brain send out hunger signals that compel you to eat more food (glucose) to raise blood sugar levels again. If you once again choose to satisfy your hunger with a simple carbohydrate, you will crave even more sweets. But instead of feeling full and satisfied, you will feel constantly hungry. Ultimately, a diet that contains lots of simple carbs can lead to a vicious cycle of hunger, overeating, and weight gain.

When it comes to losing weight (or preventing weight gain), then, you should primarily eat complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates have many advantages over simple carbs. Complex carbohydrates take longer to be digested, and so they elicit a different type of blood sugar response. They enter the bloodstream more slowly and therefore raise blood sugar levels more gradually. As a result, blood sugar levels tend to remain stable, which means your brain won't get a hunger signal for a much longer period of time. And complex carbohydrates contain fiber (simple carbs do not). Fiber, as you know, isn't digested, so it costs you nary a calorie. Not only that, but fiber adds bulk to your food, so you feel more full and satisfied after eating.

carbs and weight gain
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
Complex carbohydrates leave
 you feeling full and tend to
be low in fat.

Keep in mind, too, that you're unlikely to overeat vegetables or grains, all of which have an abundant supply of complex carbohydrate. You'd be hard-pressed to binge on a bowl of carrots or lentil soup. And even if you did, these are still low-calorie foods. The carbohydrate foods that contribute significantly to weight gain are the simple sugars that are usually part of a high-fat package: donuts, cookies, cake, candy, and ice cream. It's not just the carbohydrate in those foods that is responsible for packing on the pounds, it's the fat content, too.

Keep It Low Fat

One caveat: It is certainly possible to turn a low-calorie, complex carbohydrate such as whole-wheat pasta or a baked potato into higher-calorie fare. In fact, it happens all the time. Just spoon some Alfredo sauce on the pasta or add sour cream and butter to the potato. Adding fat to low-calorie, complex carbs does just what it says: It adds fat! Fat has more than twice the number of calories per gram (9) as carbohydrate and protein (both 4). If you serve up fat-laden complex carbs in extra-large portions, you will expand your waistline just as you will with the less nutritious simple carbohydrate foods. By eating the complex carbs, though, you'll still benefit from the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients they contain. Highly refined carbs have nothing to offer except for calories and whatever nutrients were added back through the enrichment process.

The glycemic index can help you choose the right carbs. Keep reading to learn about this helpful tool.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.