Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs: Busting the Myths

Eating the right amount of good carbs vs. bad carbs is the key to optimal health and reaching and maintaining your ideal weight.

If you’re wondering how to distinguish between good carbs vs bad carbs, you’re not alone!

It’s often confusing to determine the difference between the two and how many grams of carbs are the right amount.

Knowing more about good carbs vs bad carbs is the key to maintaining optimal health and the slim figure of your dreams.

Here are our 7 favorite good carbs that are actually healthy!

Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs

Good carbs and bad carbs are both types of carbohydrates that give you energy and help your body sustain its many functions.

Good Carbs

Good carbohydrates are found in healthy foods that are rich in fiber, protein, vitamins, or minerals in addition to total carbohydrates.

Good carbohydrates don’t usually cause giant spikes in blood sugar with corresponding blood sugar drops.

Instead, they help stabilize blood sugar, energizing you for longer periods and helping you achieve or maintain a healthy weight.

Examples of good carbohydrates that contain natural sugars or starches include:

Non-starchy vegetables
Starchy vegetables
Whole grains
Low-fat milk

These foods are whole foods, meaning they undergo minimal or no processing. Many are rich in fiber or protein, which keeps you full for longer periods.

Studies show that increasing fiber helps you lose weight if you’re overweight or obese. It isn’t fully digested or absorbed by your body.

So, while fiber fills you up, your body excretes much of it.

Bad Carbs

Bad carbs are low in essential nutrients, high in calories, or highly processed.

Many of these carbs can make your blood sugar spike temporarily, with a subsequent drop in blood sugar and feelings of fatigue.

Bad carbs aren’t usually as satiating as good carbs because they’re lower in fiber and may contain added sugar.

Examples of bad carbs to steer clear of whenever possible include:

Added sugar
Ice cream, chocolate, and candy
Doughnuts and other sweets
Soda, sweet tea, and other sugary drinks
White bread, white rice, and white hamburger buns or rolls
Baked goods
Other refined grains
Sugary cereals
Potato chips
French fries
Yogurt with added sugar
Other foods containing added sugar

Foods that often contain added sugar or are naturally rich in sugar include jams, jellies, tomato sauce, other tomato products, syrup, molasses, and honey.

Simple vs Complex Carbs

You might have heard about simple carbs vs. complex carbs and wonder what the difference really is between the two.

Complex carbohydrates are structurally different and take longer to digest.

Many complex carbohydrates are on the “good carbohydrates” list, but not all.

Complex Carbohydrates

Starches are examples of complex carbohydrates. Examples of healthy complex carbs include:

Sweet potatoes
White potatoes
Green peas, black-eyed peas, and chickpeas
Navy beans, pinto beans, black beans, and other dried beans
Lentils and other legumes
Quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain bread
Other types of whole grains

Many of the foods on the good carbs list are complex carbs (but not all). When possible, steer clear of refined complex carbs like white bread and white rice.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates break down faster than complex carbohydrates, so you should feel a quicker burst of energy after eating them.

However, the energy you gain from simple carbs isn’t usually as long-lasting as energy sustained from complex carbohydrates.

Healthy, simple carbs to consider include vegetables, fruits, and natural sugars in milk.

Unhealthy simple carbs include sugary drinks, sweet treats, and added sugar.

How Many Carbohydrates Should I Eat?

While counting carbs isn’t necessary, learning about carbohydrate guidelines and how to fill each meal plate with nutritious, carb-rich foods is often helpful.

Here are some general adult guidelines for carbohydrate consumption:

Carbohydrate recommended dietary allowance (RDA): 130 grams per day
Institute of Medicine’s macronutrient distribution range: 45-65% of total calories from carbs
Low-carb diets: about 20-130 grams daily

Studies show that low-carb diets are often more effective than other types of diets for rapid weight loss during the first 6-12 months of dieting.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) defines low-carbohydrate diets as:

Very low-carb: 20-50 grams daily
Low-carb: less than 130 grams daily
Moderate carb: 26-44% of your total calories from carbohydrates
High-carb: 45% (or greater) of your calories from carbohydrates

The best way to reduce your carbohydrate intake for weight loss or maintenance is to cut bad carbs out of your diet and focus on nutritious, lower-carb foods.

What Are Some Low-Carb Foods?

When choosing low-carb foods for weight loss, consider adding the following to your meal plan:

High-Protein Foods

Many high-protein foods are low in carbs or even carbohydrate-free. Examples of healthy protein-rich options include:

Chicken, turkey, and duck
Venison or lean organic beef
Shrimp, scallops, and other types of seafood
Low-fat cottage cheese
Plain Greek yogurt
Reduced-fat cheese
Protein powder (without added sugar)

When planning healthy meals, aim to fill at least 1/4th of your plate with nutritious protein foods and consume 2-3 servings of dairy foods (or plant-based equivalents) daily.

When following a low-carb diet, choose plain Greek yogurt, low-fat cottage cheese, reduced-fat cheese, or whey or casein powder instead of milk.

Non-Starchy Vegetables

Non-starchy veggies are low in carbohydrates, often containing just 5 grams of carbohydrates or less in each 1-cup portion. Examples of such vegetables include:

Spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and other leafy greens
Broccoli, green beans, asparagus, and other green vegetables
Cucumbers, tomatoes, and bell peppers
Mushrooms, onions, carrots, and celery
Baby corn, cauliflower, and okra

Non-starchy vegetables are low in calories, too, making them an excellent choice when weight loss or healthy weight management is your goal.

Aim to fill about 1/2 of each plate with non-starchy vegetables during mealtime.

Healthy Fats

Foods rich in nutritious, heart-healthy fats are satiating and low in carbohydrates.

Ketogenic diets, which studies show can be effective for weight loss, mainly consist of these and other fats:

Olive oil
Walnut oil
Pumpkin seed oil
Other plant-based oils
Fish oil
Nut butter
Nuts and seeds

Avocados, olives, nut butter, nuts, and seeds do contain carbohydrates, but they’re much lower in carbohydrates than fruits, starchy vegetables, and whole grains.

Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs: Common Myths

You’ve probably heard contradicting information when it comes to carbohydrate advice, as there are quite a few myths surrounding good carbs vs. bad carbs and how to eat them. Examples of common carbohydrate myths include:

Myth 1: All Simple Carbs Are Bad for You

As discussed above, not all simple carbohydrates are classified as bad carbs because fruits, many types of vegetables, and milk all contain natural (simple) sugar plus vitamins, minerals, fiber or protein, and other essential nutrients.

If you’re confused about the difference between good vs. bad simple carbs, remember that whole foods are good carbs, and added sugar and refined foods aren’t as healthy for you.

Myth 2: Carbs are Bad for Weight Loss

It’s true that reducing your overall carbohydrate intake, especially calories from bad carbs, is often effective for weight loss.

But your body still requires some carbohydrates to function correctly and give you energy, especially during workouts.

Choose good carbs vs. bad carbs whenever possible and focus on protein foods and vegetables when weight loss is your goal.

Eliminate sweets, sugary drinks, and refined grains like white bread.

Myth 3: All Sugar is Bad for You

Not all sugar is bad for you, which is essential to remember when reading nutritional labels.

Added sugar is what you want to avoid, which should be clearly listed on the label.

Natural sugars found in fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and low-fat milk give you energy and help you meet daily carbohydrate goals without the risk of unwanted weight gain.

Myth 4: You Shouldn’t Eat Any Bread

It’s best to steer clear of white bread in favor of fiber-rich, whole-grain bread whenever possible.

But you don’t have to avoid bread altogether to stay healthy and maintain a healthy weight!

Cut back on bread or opt for whole-grain varieties to help you look and feel your best.

Consider canned light tuna with avocado slices on whole-grain bread for lunch or a veggie and egg omelet with whole-grain toast for breakfast.

Myth 5: Carbs are Essential for Proper Brain Function

Glucose, a type of sugar, is often your brain’s preferred fuel source.

However, reducing carbohydrates for weight loss or healthy weight management doesn’t necessarily affect brain function because your brain can use ketones as a fuel source.

Ketones result from your body breaking down dietary or stored fat.

So, while minimum carbohydrate recommendations are set in place as a guideline, low-carb, high-fat diets (ketogenic diets) are also popular and may provide cognitive benefits.

Myth 6: All Carbohydrates Contain Gluten

Gluten, a protein found in wheat and wheat products, rye, barley, and triticale, can cause gastrointestinal problems in sensitive people.

However, not all high-carb foods contain gluten, including fruits, vegetables, and milk.

Quinoa and rice are usually safe options, too, but check the ingredient labels on bread, cereal, and pasta to know if these products contain gluten.

When processing gluten-free grains in the same facility as gluten-containing products, cross-contamination can occur.

Myth 7: Eating Too Many Carbohydrates Causes Diabetes

If you overindulge in carbohydrates and become overweight or obese, your risk of diabetes increases. So does being physically inactive.

However, carbohydrates don’t cause diabetes.

If you already have the condition, it’s important to control carbohydrates and eat smaller portions of carbs spaced evenly throughout the day or as directed by your doctor or dietitian.

Eating too many carbohydrates at once can negatively affect your blood sugar.

Myth 8: Total Grams of Carbs is Most Important

Carbohydrates aren’t all created equal for numerous reasons, even if they provide the same number of grams of carbs per serving.

Your body doesn’t fully digest or absorb fiber, so some people subtract fiber grams from total carbohydrates to determine net carbs.

How carb-rich foods affect your blood sugar, keep you full, and contribute to your overall calorie intake is most important for weight management and overall health.

If high-carb foods contain fat in addition to carbohydrates, their calorie content increases.

Erin Coleman
B.S. – Nutritional Science, R.D., L.D.

Writer, The Fit Mother Project

Erin Coleman is a registered and licensed dietitian with over 15 years of freelance writing experience.

She graduated with her Bachelor of Science degree in nutritional science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and completed her dietetic internship at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Prior to beginning her career in medical content writing, Erin worked as Health Educator for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Internal Medicine.

Her published work appears on hundreds of health and fitness websites, and she’s currently working on publishing her first book! Erin is a wife, and a Mom to two beautiful children.

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*Please know that weight loss results & health changes/improvements vary from individual to individual; you may not achieve similar results. Always consult with your doctor before making health decisions. This is not medical advice – simply very well-researched info on good carbs vs bad carbs.

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