Let’s start by talking about carbohydrates in general. Carbohydrates (often abbreviated CHO) are found in all plant foods and are considered a macro nutrient, along with protein and fat. Carbohydrates provide an easy source of energy for your body and unless you are in ketosis, it is the preferred fuel for your body. Carbs are often referred to according to the two major kinds found in nature: simple sugars and complex sugars, also known as starches. Simple sugars are molecules with just one or two units of sugar, like glucose, sucrose, and fructose. Complex sugars have three or more sugar units joined together. Because they have more bonds, it takes more chemical work to break them apart into simple sugars and burn them for energy.
Both simple sugars and starches are found in nature and can be effectively and healthfully integrated into a plant-based diet that emphasizes whole foods. For example, sources of simple sugars include most ripe fruits like apples, pears, berries, bananas and pineapple. Starches are found in legumes, also known as beans and peas, in grains in larger proportions, and there are also some in nuts and seeds.
Good Vs. Bad Sugars
So what makes one simple sugar or starch “bad” or “good”? The secret is, how close to nature is the sugar or starch you’re consuming? Sound too simple? But it really IS that simple! The more processing or refining you put a whole food through, the worse it becomes for your body. Any processing or refining that removes something from a whole food is the real culprit. These altered foods are metabolized differently from whole foods and that’s where much of the problem arises. Sugar levels spike quickly, drop quickly, and trigger higher insulin levels. This sets off a whole domino metabolic effect that causes inflammation in the body and invites disease.
So let’s look at what often happens to simple sugars first. Let’s take for example, sugar cane. Have you ever eaten fresh, raw sugar cane? I have, and it’s delicious! Let me describe it to you in case you have never had that experience — sugar cane is actually a type of grass with a very thick stem, often one or more inches in diameter. It is jointed like bamboo, and has a very tough outer skin. Mature sugar cane stalks often have four to six feet of edible stem. In order to get at the edible portion, you have to cut it into sections that contain a single joint, at about four to six inches long. That takes a very sharp knife or even a machete. The interior of the sugar cane is very fibrous, like celery on steroids! Once you remove the outer layer, you can chew on the inside fiber and extract the sweet tasting sap. You can chew that fiber until it is completely dry and has no more juice, but it is too fibrous to actually chew up — you just spit the flavorless leftovers out and throw it away. Your jaw will get tired of chewing after a while, so if you decide to eat some sugar cane for dessert, you will have a great sweet bit of juice that will probably satisfy your sweet tooth quite nicely, but most people do not eat their sugar that way. Instead, the sugar cane is pressed to extract the juice and then boiled down and evaporated or centrifuged to extract water. But water isn’t all that is lost. If you use the first process, and just boil down the whole cane juice till it is crystallized, you will end up with a dry product that is dark brown and sweet. It goes by many different names: panela, piloncillo, chancaca, rapadura, and jaggery (this last term can also refer to date palm sugar). This has all the minerals and vitamins from the natural sugar cane but is highly concentrated. Because of the concentration, if used for sweetening, use minimal amounts.
But most people aren’t even using just concentrated sweeteners, but refined sweeteners. In the case of granulated sugar, not only is the water removed, but all of the vitamins and minerals are removed, along with the different grades of molasses. So the finished product is pure sucrose, devoid of the minerals and vitamins your body needs to burn it for fuel. That’s why it is often referred to as a form of empty calories — they are empty of the nutrients your body needs to process them which means your body will have to rob those nutrients from other places just to burn this fuel. That’s kind of like robbing Peter to pay Paul, just nutritionally.
Concentration is also an important factor here. Imagine, it takes nine feet of sugar cane to make one teaspoon of white sugar. One teaspoon is four grams of sugar. Now check the number of grams of sugar in a single serving of your favorite dry cereal. Many of them have 10-18 grams in just one serving — you would have to eat 36 feet of sugar cane or more to get that amount of sugar!
Now I hope it makes more sense when we say raw, fresh sugar cane is a “good carb” whereas white sugar (which is refined and processed) or even brown sugar and panela (which are processed or concentrated) are “bad carbs” or the ones you want to avoid. It is a similar story with other simple sugars like beet sugar, honey, maple syrup, and any foods where a major ingredient is sugar in any processed form. Because good carbs are accompanied by all of the fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that keep them company in nature, let’s eat our fruits with skins when possible, and without turning them into juice or sauce, or adding more sugar to them.
Good Vs. Bad Starches
So now let’s look at starches and what are the “good” and the “bad” carbs in this subset of foods. The most common form in which starches are consumed around the world are in the form of grains and grain products. That includes wheat, corn, rye, barley, rice, oats and more. Processing grains does not remove any nutrients when techniques such as rolling (rolled oats), cracking and steel cutting (wheat and oats) or pre-cooking (quick cooking brown rice and quick or instant oats) are used. Grinding into flour, as long as nothing is removed, also retains all the original nutrients but can affect speed of metabolism (an important consideration for diabetics). So the “bad carbs” would be those that have lost nutrients or fiber like white rice, white flour and white flour products, and degerminated corn. Good starches are whole beans that are well cooked, and grains used in their whole grain form. It’s important to read labels and make sure all grains in a product are in their 100 percent whole form and not degerminated.
By discarding the bad carbs and including the good ones in your diet, you will start to see improvements in energy, greater blood sugar control, and better moods. Try it, you’ll like it!