Be Carb Smart With Your Food Choices

August 10, 2016

Carbohydrates are one of the most popular topics in the area of nutrition. They have been glorified, vilified, and everything in between. So what are carbohydrates? Where do they come from? Are there different types? How do they help us? Are they something that needs to be eliminated or reduced in a weight loss surgery post-op's diet? What does it take to be carb smart.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates make up the fibers, sugars, and starches that are found in food, specifically grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Meat, meat alternatives, and foods such as cheese are relatively low in carbohydrates, thus do not contribute a significant amount to the diet unless eaten in large quantities.

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients derived from the diet, in addition to fat and protein. This means that they are required in relatively large amounts by the body in order to function. Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel. They provide us with a source of glucose (through starch and sugar sources), which the body then converts to energy (or stores for later use) for bodily functions, as well as exercise. Those carbohydrates that provide us with the glucose for energy yield 4 calories per gram; this is comparable to protein, which also yields 4 calories per gram, whereas fat is more than double, yielding 9 calories per gram. Fiber is another important carbohydrate but does not yield energy.

Types of Carbohydrates - Healthy and Unhealthy

Contrary to popular belief, and often vilified by fad diets, carbohydrates are an important part of the diet. The difference is in the type of carbohydrates, as there are healthy and unhealthy sources.

A Healthy Carb

Healthy sources of carbohydrates tend to come from whole, unprocessed (or minimally processed) foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, and whole grains. These sources tend to provide some sugar and/or starch for energy, but are also the highest sources of fiber, a type of carbohydrate that, while doesn’t provide energy, provides us with a slew of other benefits. Fiber (both soluble and insoluble) has been found to be beneficial in a number of areas, such as weight loss, blood sugar regulation, bowel health, and heart health.

These healthy sources of carbohydrates also provide us with a number of other nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals and other disease fighting properties. Non-starchy vegetables are very low sugar and starch and high in fiber, thus can and should be a large part of a healthy diet. Starchy vegetables (potatoes, peas and corn) should be consumed in moderation. Portion control should also be exercised in terms of fruits, beans, and whole grains; although they are excellent sources of fiber, larger quantities may contribute to overall sugar and starch in the diet, as well as extra calories. Low fat dairy (i.e. yogurt and milk) should be consumed in moderation as well, but is an excellent source of protein, as well as calcium, magnesium and potassium.

An Unhealthy Carb

Unhealthy sources of carbohydrates are often referred to as refined carbs, as they have had most of the healthy qualities stripped away in processing. Refined carbs strip away fiber, protein and many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).

These foods include refined grains, such as white bread and pasta, baked goods, and highly processed/high sugar foods such as candies and sodas. These items provide high amounts of sugar and starch (as well as fat), with little fiber and have low nutritional value in general, contributing to more energy dense foods, rather than nutrient dense. These foods are more likely to contribute to a number of adverse health effects and should be limited in the diet.

Include or Exclude A Carb?

So should we include carbohydrates into our daily diets? Absolutely! As you can see, they provide us with a number of important health benefits and keep our bodies running smoothly, both at rest and during exercise. As with all things, there can be too much of a good thing.

A diet high in refined/unhealthy carbohydrates can provide excess energy intake, thus leading to weight gain or regain after WLS, and very little dietary value. Additionally, refined/unhealthy carbs provide very little of the protective nutrients to protect against chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. The key is to exercise good portion control, and choose the healthier sources of carbohydrates most of the time, leaving indulgences in the unhealthy choices to special occasions.

keri layton


Keri Layton RD, CSO, LD has a strong background in providing medical nutrition therapy for many nutrition-related health issues, including diabetes, renal disease, heart health, nutrition support, as well as general nutrition and weight loss. For the past three years, Keri does private nutrition consulting as well as bariatric consulting with Bariatric Dietitian Services.

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