Ah, carbs—the foundation of everything delicious in the world. From thick-crust pizza to creamy macaroni and cheese to fluffy, fresh-baked donuts, carbs can be pretty hard to resist. But if you’re trying to avoid them, here’s the good news: you don’t have to completely cut carbs to stay healthy or lose weight; you just have to know the difference between which ones are healthy and which ones are…well, not so healthy.
Let’s start with the main difference: according to Livestrong.com, whole wheat foods are made up of complex carbs, which contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Non-whole-wheat foods, such as white pastas, are made up of simple carbs, which contain fewer nutrients because of the way they are processed. Simple carbs can be found in foods and drinks such as table sugar, soda, candy and fruits (good news about fruits: they contain fiber and protein along with a slew of other nutrients, which makes those simple carbs perform similarly to complex carbs).
“During the process of making simple carbohydrates, in wheat for example, many essential nutrients such as vitamins and fiber are removed, whereas complex carbohydrates are more complete and have all the nutrients,” says Dr. Shahla Wunderlich, professor of nutrition and food studies at Montclair State University.
What does this mean? Basically, when carbs are processed, they are stripped of their main components, creating a white carb that lacks the nutrients of whole grain carbs. These simple carbs create a spike in blood sugar levels that gives us a burst of energy for a short period of time. According to WebMD, the processing of these carbs also strips away fiber that is essential to our diets. On the other hand, whole grain carbs break down slowly in the body to release that energy over time, allowing it to be stored for times when we actually need it.
“I would not say simple carbohydrates are “bad” for us, rather they are not as nutrias as complex carbohydrates,” Wunderlich says.
The good news is that complex carbs are easy to find, so they’re no trouble to add to the diet. Whole wheat pasta or bread, potatoes, quinoa and beans are all examples of complex carbs.
So here’s the deal: Complex carbs, meaning good carbs, come from plant-based foods such as vegetables, beans and whole grains. Whole grains provide nutrients essential to our bodies, while processed grains such as white breads and white pastas are stripped of their benefits before entering our mouths. A word of advice: If you’re gearing up for a big game or trying to feed your body proper fiber and other nutrients (say, before a workout), stick to whole-wheat pastas, breads and flour. If you don’t mind indulging a bit, go for the white pasta; you’ll be fine!