Good Carb, Bad Carb: How Well Do You Know Your Carbs?

While reading the New York Times recently, I came across a fascinating article that explains the idea of Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs.  The media tends to bombard us with over-simplified nutrition information and it was refreshing to read Jane Brody differentiate between healthy carbs (and fats) and unhealthy ones.

Due to the low-carb craze that has swept the country over the last couple decades with trendy diets from Atkins to Paleo, there’s a deeply ingrained tendency to label all carbs as bad.

But in doing so, we forget that carbohydrates are our primary energy source.

Classifying all carbs as bad is like classifying all flowers as pink. Sure, there are a lot of pink ones, but that’s far from the whole story.

The Glycemic Index

Some carbs provide a steady source of energy and are critical to our vitality and wellbeing, while others cause metabolic havoc and result in all kinds of problems.  The basic difference is how quickly (or slowly) a carbohydrate is digested. Different types of carbs are measured and classified through a system called the Glycemic Index.

So what exactly is the Glycemic Index, you ask? Much like outer space, algebra and the Kardashians’ rise to fame, the Glycemic Index is something we’re all familiar with, but many don’t truly understand.

In 1981, the glycemic index was invented, and pure glucose was given the value of 100. Other foods were given comparative values based on the glucose response – in other words, how quickly they raised blood sugar — to determine which carbs were good (those below 55), which were neutral (55-70) and which were unhealthy (above 70).

Why Are Some Carbs Bad?

Certain carbohydrates are digested quickly in our bodies. These are the bad ones that spike blood sugars.  Table sugar, soda, candy and sweets are the classic examples.

Refined grains are another culprit.  Think “white foods” like white rice, white bread and baked goods like muffins, cupcakes, bagels, cookies, crackers and cakes.  As Dr. Hu from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explains in the aforementioned article, “highly processed grains that have been stripped of dietary fiber act more like sugar in the body. They are rapidly digested and absorbed, raising blood levels of glucose and prompting the secretion of insulin to process it.”

How Bad is “Bad”?

The effects can be wide ranging and very destructive:

  1. The excess insulin that Dr. Hu refers to turns the circulating blood sugar to fat, leading to weight gain and fatty liver
  2. The resulting low blood sugar level signals the brain to seek out more glucose, which is perceived by us as hunger and cravings for the most readily available source—sugar and refined carbs
  3. This can create a blood sugar roller coaster where we literally feel hungry all the time while we are actually gaining weight
  4. Low blood sugars not only cause cravings, but also make us tired, irritable and distracted. Most of us are now familiar with the term “hangry.”  Low blood sugar = hungry + angry

Why Are Some Carbs Good?

Our body transforms all carbs into glucose.  Our brain consumes 30% of it.  Carbs are essential to thinking and moving.

Healthy carbs are essentially those that contain fiber, digest slowly, and don’t spike blood sugars.  They are scientifically known as low-glycemic. Examples include fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, whole grains and low-glycemic sweeteners like agave.  These carbohydrates are digested slowly into glucose and provide an even, measured supply of energy to our system.  Zing bars measure between 19 and 32 on the glycemic index scale.

Quiz Time

Think you know your carbs? Take this quiz.

  1. Which of these foods are on the low (good) end of the index:
  • Spaghetti Squash
  • White Baguette
  • Russet Potatoes
  • Rice Cakes
  • E. All of the above

The answer is A. Spaghetti Squash with a Glycemic Index of 41.  Baguettes, rice cakes and especially russet potatoes (index score of 111) spike blood sugar, and can lead to cravings and weight gain.

  1. Which of these foods are on the low (good) end of the index:
  • Cornflakes
  • Gatorade
  • Grapenuts
  • Pretzels
  • None of the above

The answer is E. All of the above are relatively poor choices with scores of 93, 78, 75, and 83 respectively.

How are you doing so far? One more round awaits.

  1. Which of these foods are on the low (good) end of the index:
  • Hummus
  • Peanuts
  • Skim milk
  • Wheat tortilla
  • All of the above

Again, the answer is E, all of the above. They’re all healthy choices.

How did you do? (Tell us in the comments!)

The science behind blood sugar is a primary reason we developed Zing Bars in the first place.  It’s impossible to feel energized and focused when your blood sugars are erratic.  In addition to supplying an excellent balance of protein, carbs and fats, Zing Bars contain low-glycemic carbs that help balance blood sugars, keeping us active and engaged throughout the day.

For a more thorough discussion of the destructive effects of erratic blood sugar, go here

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