The Difference Between Good and Bad Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (carbs) are an essential energy source, and vital for good health. When we eat carbohydrates, our body converts them into glycogen (sugar) supplying the energy we require for optimal bodily functions.

Over the years, fad diet programs have labeled carbohydrates as "good" or "bad." However, instead of putting a moral label on the foods we eat, it's important to understand how the three macronutrients—fats, protein, and carbohydrates—work together to keep us functioning at our best.

Although there are recognized benefits to reducing refined carbohydrate intakes from ultra-processed foods, most people benefit from keeping natural carbohydrate sources, like fruit, starchy vegetables, beans, and whole grains, in their eating plan.

Side effects of severe carb restriction can include dizziness, fatigue, nausea, weakness, and depression along with more serious health risks. 

Eliminating all carbohydrates can leave you feeling fatigued, impair exercise performance, and even cause nutrient deficiencies. Instead, learn how carbohydrates can fit into your healthy-eating plan so you can enjoy a variety of foods while still making progress towards your fitness goals.

Different Sources of Carbohydrate

Oats

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Instead of calling carbohydrates "good" or "bad," they can be more accurately described as "complex" and "simple." Both kinds of carbohydrate can also be refined.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are defined as polysaccharides, which simply means that they contain at least three glucose molecules. Foods high in fiber and starch take longer to digest and contain important vitamins, minerals, prebiotics, and antioxidants.

Slow-release energy helps regulate appetite and blood sugar, keeping you feeling full for longer. Whole grains, beans, quinoa, legumes, oats, and brown rice are excellent sources of complex carbs. 

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates contain only one or two sugar molecules; they are referred to as monosaccharides and disaccharides. Simple carbohydrate foods include things like milk, fruit, juice, table sugar, and syrup. Some are healthy, such as fruit and low-fat or non-fat milk. 

Foods high in naturally occurring or added sugars are digested quickly. Fruits, juices, milk, white flour, white rice, sugar, and soda are simple carbs. While some of these foods provide nutrients (like vitamins in fruit and protein in milk), processed carbohydrates like crackers and chips are lacking in essential nutrients, such as fiber and vitamins.

Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and white pasta, usually start out as whole grains (that is, complex carbohydrates). In processing, the bran and germ of the whole grain are removed, which also fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. So these foods retain little nutritional value. 

Carbohydrate Food Examples

Sweet potato

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Switching out refined carbohydrates for complex carbs gives you more bang for your buck, nutritionally speaking. For instance, eating an ear of corn from the husk versus corn flakes, a peeled orange over orange juice, or a baked potato instead of a bag of chips will fuel your body with the fiber and micronutrients required for sustained energy and disease prevention.

Here are a few examples of carbohydrates worth adding to your grocery list:

  • Beans and legumes: Have them cold or baked into dishes
  • Nuts and seeds: Get healthy fats in addition to complex carbs
  • Tubers: Sweet potatoes and white potatoes (ideally, with the skin)
  • Vegetables: Eat a variety every day
  • Whole fruits: Keep the skin on when you can
  • Whole grains: Oats, quinoa, brown rice, whole grain bread, and barley

During food processing, many of the nutritious properties are stripped away from natural foods (namely fiber). Sugar, sodium, and preservatives are then often added to enhance flavor and prolong shelf-life. Unfortunately, these additives do little to benefit our health. (Some foods, such as cereal and bread, do have nutrients added back in, but it's ideal to eat more whole foods instead of relying on these fortified foods.)

A good rule of thumb is to shop for foods with a shorter list of ingredients on the food label. Packaged foods that have fewer ingredients and a shorter shelf life are usually a healthier buy. 

Here are some examples of processed carbohydrates that should take up limited space in your overall eating plan:

  • Juices: Even 100% juice is a concentrated source of sugar; try diluting it with water or limiting to one glass a day.
  • Processed snacks: White pretzels, sugary granola bars, and candy should be consumed in moderation.
  • Sugary drinks: Soda, sports drinks, chocolate milk, and sweetened teas are hidden sources of sugar.
  • White bread: Refined flour products usually lack fiber and vitamins and contain additives that should be eaten less often.

The most nutritious types of carbohydrates include vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.

The Benefits of Fiber

Couscous

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Dietary fiber comes mainly from complex carbohydrates. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest we consume 45% to 65% of our daily intake from these carbohydrates to meet our body's fiber requirements.

Fiber intake should range from 25 to 35 grams daily. Studies show that eating enough fiber helps with body fat and cholesterol reduction, improved digestion, and reduced risk of diabetes and cancer. We require two types of fiber for optimal health and fitness: insoluble and soluble.

Insoluble Fiber

Insoluble fiber isn’t broken down during digestion or absorbed into the bloodstream. It adds bulk to stool for easier elimination, reducing the incidence of constipation and protecting against colon cancer.

The following foods are high in insoluble fiber:

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Bulgur or whole-grain cereals
  • Couscous
  • Fruits
  • Most vegetables
  • Seeds
  • Wheat bran
  • Whole wheat bread

Soluble Fiber

Soluble fiber absorbs water and becomes a sticky gel inside our digestive tract that helps soften the stool, making it easier to pass. It also binds to cholesterol and sugar, mitigating their release into the bloodstream.

Soluble fiber acts as a prebiotic, promoting good gut bacteria, reducing inflammation, and boosting immunity. The following foods are great sources of soluble fiber:

  • Avocados
  • Barley
  • Dry beans and peas
  • Most fruits
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Oat bran
  • Oatmeal

What to Look For

The following carbohydrate comparison explains how you can find the best carbs for your health:

Qualities to seek out in carbohydrate foods:

  • High fiber content: Compare labels to get enough fiber every day.
  • Minimal processing: Look for those low in refined sugars, refined grains, sodium, and saturated and trans fats.
  • Nutrient-rich: Enjoy a variety of nutrients from colorful, natural foods.

Qualities to avoid in carbohydrate foods:

  • Highly processed: Long ingredients lists and Nutrition Facts that show high sodium, trans/saturated fats, and sugar
  • Nutrient-poor: Low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber
  • Refined grains: Instead of "enriched flour," search for food labels with the word "whole"

Studies show that refined sugars, like high fructose corn syrup and white table sugar, make up more than 20% of the calories we eat each day. Refined sugars are linked to disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. You can spot added sugars on a food label because they usually end in "-ose."

A Word From Verywell

Carbohydrates are essential for good nutrition and sustained energy. Choosing unprocessed carbohydrates more often than refined ones will help your body gain the maximum benefits that this macronutrient has to offer. While there are no "good" or "bad" foods, it's wise to consider refined carbs once-in-a-while treats as opposed to a significant portion of your dietary pattern.

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