So-called "good carbs" include whole, unprocessed grains, which are an important part of a healthy diet.

How Do I Tell Good Carbs from Bad Carbs?

Healthy eating advice is full of references to “bad carbs” and “good carbs” and most of us think we know the difference – but do we? Here’s a rule of thumb: Think of so-called good carbs as foods that are little changed from the way they occur in nature. Foods that are closer to the natural source contain more of their original nutrient and fiber content and are denser, so they are absorbed into the bloodstream more slowly and don’t spike your blood sugar.

What Are Carbohydrates?

You may have heard that carbohydrates are sugars, and this is more or less true. Simple carbohydrates are sugars, and complex carbohydrates are formed by linking together several sugar chains. But while many people think complex carbohydrates are the good ones and simple carbs the bad ones, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Grains such as wheat and rice are complex carbohydrates in their natural state, but when they are processed and refined, the fibrous content is stripped out and they become simple carbs. And  fruit, which technically falls into the simple carb category because of its fructose content, is very good for you.

Is There a Checklist?

One thing you’ve probably read is that bad carbs are the “white” foods, and that’s true – white flour and white sugar are your biggest red flags. As you’ll see from the list below, good carbohydrates aren’t necessarily complex, or bad carbohydrates simple.

“Bad” carbs
  • Sugar
  • White flour
  • White rice
  • White flour pasta
  • Soda pop
  • Cakes and cookies
  • Chips
  • Processed fruit juice
“Good” carbs
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans
  • Whole grains
  • Brown, red and black rice
  • Whole Wheat and other natural grain flours
  • Whole grain pasta and other whole grain products

Which Carbs Give Me Energy?

Both good and bad carbs provide energy. But foods made with sugar and white flour will give you a short jolt of energy followed by a blood sugar crash that will leave you feeling tired and hungry an hour later. Whole, unprocessed carbohydrates are slower to digest, giving you a sustained flow of energy that will carry you through a workout or until your next meal. And if you add protein and a moderate amount of healthy fat to combination with good carbohydrates, you’ll feel full and satisfied even longer.

Are There Other Carbs to Consider?

It comes as a surprise to most of us is that beans and legumes are considered complex carbohydrates. Rich in protein, minerals and vitamins, they can be the centerpiece of a meal or a healthy snack. Nutritionists also like legumes and beans because they rank high in satiety, making you feel full longer and reducing you appetite. And don’t forget the many food products made from beans and legumes, such as ground chickpeas (hummus and falafel), soy milk and tofu.

Lastly, in your search for healthy carbohydrates, don’t overlook the so-called ancient grains like quinoa, faro, millet, kasha. And when brown rice gets boring, experiment with the many varieties of red, black, and wild rice. And good old-fashioned grits are healthy too. After all, since you eat whole grains every day, why eat the same ones over and over?

Heather D'Eliso Gordon is a Nutrition Health Coach and Sports Dietitian in the Health Education department of Kaiser Permanente San Francisco. A certified specialist in sports dietetics, Heather works with both recreational and competitive athletes to create optimal nutrition plans that support their fitness goals. She also provides nutrition coaching to Kaiser Permanente patients pursuing weight loss goals or coping with diabetes, high cholesterol, celiac disease, and other conditions.