Doctor explains ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ carbs

Q: What is the difference between good and bad carbs? I'd like to understand them better.

A: There is a definite mystery behind "good" and "bad" carbs — a topic that often bewilders those on a journey toward a healthier lifestyle. Carbohydrates are our body's primary energy source, but not all carbs are created equal. Let's break down the distinction between the two and their effect on your health.

Carbs are essential nutrients categorized into sugars, fiber and starches. Upon consumption, our bodies convert carbs into glucose, fueling our cells and supporting bodily functions. However, the types of carbs we consume play a crucial role in determining how they affect us.

Complex carbohydrates, often termed "good" carbs, can be found in unprocessed, whole foods and offer numerous health benefits, including lowering risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, obesity and premature death. These carbs are digested gradually, preventing sudden spikes in blood sugar levels and providing sustained energy. Noteworthy examples include:

— Whole grains: Nourishing options like quinoa, barley, brown rice, rolled oats and farro are rich in fiber and nutrients.

— Legumes: Lentils, beans of any variety and peas are excellent sources of plant-based protein and are very high in fiber.

— Vegetables: Both nonstarchy veggies such as spinach, broccoli and bell peppers and starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn and squash are bursting with vitamins and minerals.

— Fruits: Fresh fruits like berries, apples and oranges combine natural sugars with fiber, promoting overall health.

"Bad" carbs, known as simple carbohydrates, populate processed and refined foods. They are associated with higher risk of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, obesity and premature death. Common culprits encompass:

— Sugary snacks: Confections, pastries, cereals and desserts are laden with refined sugars and unhealthy fats while offering little nutritional value.

— Sugary drinks: Beverages like sodas, fruit juices and energy drinks are sugar-packed and can lead to weight gain and dental problems.

— Processed foods: Refined grains found in white bread, white pasta and various packaged snacks lack nutrients and fiber.

— Fast food: Many fast-food items harbor refined carbs, unhealthy fats,and excess calories.

For a well-rounded diet, you can include up to 15 servings of complex carbs including, beans, fruit, vegetables and whole grains per day. Aim for carbs grown on a plant instead of ones made in a plant. The closer the food is to the way nature made it, the better. For a free resource to help keep track of getting healthy carbohydrates that promote ideal health, check out Dr. Greger's Daily Dozen at or download the free app on your phone.

Always consult a health care professional or registered dietitian before making significant dietary changes, especially if you have underlying health conditions.

Dr. Steven Fox is a family practice physician with UT Family Practice and a member of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society.

  photo  Dr. Steven Fox