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The Truth About Carbs: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

Carbohydrates are an essential nutrient your body uses for fuel. However, carbs have become the enemy of many people with diet, weight loss, and body shaping goals.

So, what’s the skinny on carbs, anyway?

Well, it’s really not as complicated as it may seem, but it’s not as simple as good and evil either. Depending on what your diet, fitness, or weight loss goal is, carbohydrates can be your best friend – or your worst enemy. But, since carbohydrates don’t fall into just one category (and neither do your goals) it’s good to know what this nutrient really is, where it comes from, and what it does to your body.

Simple Carbs: The Bad

These are the carbohydrates that can sabotage weight loss and diet efforts. They are found in the form of sugar, including fructose, lactose, maltose, sucrose, and galactose. Since there is very little nutritional value associated with food sources of these carbs, if you are consuming simple carbohydrates, you’re probably also consuming processed foods and sugars that offer your body very little when it comes to nutrients. Many people consider simple carbs to be “bad” carbohydrates.

Complex Carbs: The Good

Complex carbohydrates are commonly found in starchy foods, and you may find that these carbohydrate-rich foods offer much more in the realm of nutrients. Foods that supply complex carbohydrates include beans and legumes, starchy vegetables, and whole grains.

The Ugly?

One of the most important things to know about carbohydrates is this: not all carbs are created equal. What you must know about consuming carbs is the difference between simple and complex carbs. It really boils down to their rate of digestion and their impact on blood sugar levels.

The reason so many people benefit from cutting carbohydrates from their diet is because it isn’t just the carbohydrates that affect their waistline. It’s the effect of the rate of digestion and the impact the carbs have on their blood sugar levels.

Consuming “bad” carbohydrates can leave you reaching for more carbs after those levels drop. Since carbohydrates often come from sugars, they can create blood sugar spikes that cause energy highs and lows, and, essentially, cause food addictions that can be difficult to break.

Grocery List of Complex Carbs

Complex carbohydrates can be found in many natural foods. Print out this grocery list of slow-digesting carbohydrates, and take it with you.


Potato Peas Steamed brown rice Oatmeal
Sweet Potato Barley Steamed wild rice Buckwheat
Yams Corn Quinoa Steel-cut oats
Squash Strawberries Couscous High-fiber cereal
Pumpkin Melon Sorghum Fat-free yogurt
Beans (black, kidney) Apple Kamut Fat-free milk
Lentils Orange Bulgur Whole grain bread, tortillas, and pasta

What is Carbohydrate Cycling?

In today’s competitive world of weight loss, fitness, and bodybuilding many people think that carbohydrates are the enemy. But it’s simply not true. In fact, even simple (fast-digesting) carbohydrates can help you reach your body-shaping goals – but there is a time and place for everything.

Carb-cycling is an advanced diet strategy that includes phases where you alternate your carbohydrate intake. Some cycles will include high-carbs, while other cycles are low-carb, or no carbs at all. For example, if you were preparing for a marathon run you might cycle off of simple carbs for a month, but then just before the race “carb up” with a cycle where you add back the simple fast-digesting carbs into your diet, giving your body more sugar (glucose) stores to burn for energy. Many people use carb cycling as a way to achieve their specific goals. Here are just three of the main reasons why people carb cycle.

  1. Body Composition. Some people reduce carbs during the cutting phase of their performance cycle to boost lean muscle growth. Or they will increase their simple carb intake in order to change their body composition to facilitate weight gain via higher body-fat percentage.
  2. Training. Depending on the intensity of the event or competition they are preparing for, athletes may use carb-cycling to prepare for a marathon, a weight lifting challenge or even a bodybuilding competition.  
  3. Resting. For professional bodybuilders, rest periods are days used to repair damaged tissues, and achieve muscle growth. During this time, pro-bodybuilders may choose to approach this time with high-carbs while others lower their carb intake.

Grocery List of Simple Carbs

If you are in a high-carbohydrate cycle, take this list of fast-digesting simple carbs along with you:

Honey White rice Instant grits Parsnip
Agave nectar Cornbread Corn Bananas
Puffed cereals (white rice, wheat, corn, and rice cakes) Millet Carrots Apples
Flaked cereals (corn, bran) Thick noodle pasta Beets Melons
White potatoes (regular russet, instant, mashed) Potato chips,corn chips Turnip Raisins

Weight Loss, Body Shaping, and Energy

So, are carbs the enemy? No. They simply need to come from the right sources for your particular goal. If you need tons of calories to burn during an intense workout, and a fast burst of energy, simple carbs are a great way to go.

A spoonful of honey in a cup of green tea will really get you going, as honey contains a combination of glucose and fructose, and green tea offers some caffeine. If you want to lose weight, however, reaching for simple carbs in the form of processed high-sugar foods will only leave you wanting more of the same.

Aim to always get your simple carbs from fruits and vegetables – not candy, table sugar, or syrups. Choose a slow-digesting carb option like whole grains, beans, or legumes when you need lasting energy. These foods also provide fiber, slowly releasing carbohydrates into your system, so you don’t suffer the highs and lows of blood sugar spikes. You’ll also feel fuller longer by consuming complex carbs.

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About the Author

Dr. Amy Lee

Dr. Amy Lee has board certifications in internal medicine, physician nutrition and obesity medicine specialty. She practices internal medicine with a heavy emphasis on nutrition, wellness and weight management. Her Clinical nutrition fellowship training at UCLA has allowed her to incorporate realistic lifestyle modification in all her medicine patients.