Six minute read

Understanding what carbs are—and how they work—can help you make the healthiest choices in 2019

If you’re like the millions of Americans who plan to embark on a journey to eat better in 2019 but still need a road map, your ears perk up at the mention of the latest “lose-weight-feel-better” diets.

In the past several years, the phrase “low-carb” has likely filtered into your consciousness. It’s a style of eating that aims to reduce carbohydrates to less than 50 grams a day. The resulting weight loss is particularly fast in the first few weeks. The Atkins Diet is the most well-known of the low-carb eating plans.

A more intense version of the low-carb diet is the “ultra-low-cab-diet.” In 2018, the most popular of these diets was Keto, an ultra-low-carb, high fat diets aim for less than 5% of daily calories from carbs, with more than 70% of calories from fat. This triggers ketosis, a state in which the body burns fat for fuel instead of stored carbs. When strictly adhered to, the Keto Diet results in fast, noticeable weight loss.

Mojgan Ehtemam, a registered dietitian and director of food and nutrition at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center, emphasizes that the 2015-2020 USDA Dietary Guidelines for Healthy Americans recommends that 45 to 65 percent of total daily calories come from carbohydrates.

"The current recommended daily allowance is 130 grams per day," Ehtemam says.

Are carbs why I'm gaining weight?

The idea of low carb or super-low-carb eating plans as a solution to weight-gain woes is not a new one.

Carbs have been fingered for years as the culprit behind unwanted weight gain. To a degree, that’s accurate: some carbs are full of added sugars like corn syrup, white sugar and honey. Other carbs may use hydrogenation to produce trans fats that make foods more shelf stable or solid at room temperature. These are usually found in processed foods. Examples include white bread, regular pasta, crackers, white rice, soda, pastries, sweet, candy, cookies … the list goes on. And so does the weight.

You may think you have no choice but to go the restrictive, low-carb route if you want to lose weight. But the truth is, you can still enjoy carbs without derailing your journey to weight-loss and a healthy lifestyle.

What is a Carb, Anyway?

Eating a diet that includes carbohydrates doesn't by itself cause weight gain.

"(Weight gain) is caused by multiple factors," Ehtemam explains, "including but not limited to an excessive intake of calories, calorie imbalance and sedentary lifestyle."

To understand which carbs to embrace and which to avoid you first need to know the basics.

Any food that contains sugars, fiber or starches is considered a carb. When you eat a carb, it’s converted during digestion into glucose. Simply put, carbs are the body’s main source of energy, particularly for the brain. Fat is just a backup source.
So far, so good. But what makes one type of carb “good” and the other “bad” if both are used to create energy for the brain and body?

The Basics

In a nutshell, carbohydrates can be divided into two categories: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are found naturally in fruit and milk, as well processed and added sugars such as candy, white sugar, syrup and soft drinks.

Simple carbohydrates don’t offer much in the way of essential nutrients because they don’t contain vitamins, minerals, proteins or fiber.

"Foods and drinks with simple sugars are higher in calories," says Ehtemam.

They also enter the bloodstream quickly, which can lead to a blood sugar spike. Insulin is released to combat the excess sugar. But if the insulin can’t restore balance, it tells your liver to store fat. But there’s more—insulin also tells fat cells to stop breaking down stored fat, making you more prone to gaining weight.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, pack in the nutrients. And, unlike foods comprised of simple carbs, they take longer to digest and enter the blood stream much more slowly. Plus, they have more fiber, which makes you feel fuller sooner and can help lead to weight loss because you’re eating less.

How to Tell the Difference

So now that you the basics, how do you apply this knowledge to your real life eating habits? As a rule, carbs in their natural, fiber-rich form are healthier. "As long as you don't overload them," adds Ehtmam.

Processed foods—those which are made from refined foods—are high in “bad” carbs, which offer little to no nutritional value.

Examples of “good” carbs:

  • Vegetables: Good source of fiber, plus they make you feel fuller, longer. Lots of great vitamins too. You’ll find complex carbs naturally in plant foods, including fibrous fruits like apples, starchy vegetables like yams, and grains like wheat, corn, rice, oats, barley and quinoa.
  • Fruit: Low in calories and loaded with disease-fighting nutrients.
  • Legumes: A good source of fiber, zinc, folate, iron and, of course, protein. Nuts
  • Seeds: with their high protein, fiber and healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients and special compounds for balancing hormones
  • Whole grains: Naturally rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and healthy fats
  • Tubers: Root crops are ancient food sources prized for their amazing nutritional benefits. Yacon, potatoes, yams and cassava are just some of the hundreds of examples of tubers.

Examples of “bad” carbs:

  • Sugary drinks: carbonated soft drinks, specialty “waters,” energy drinks are full of added, unhealthy sugars
  • Fruit Juices: Similar to soft drinks, fruit juices are frequently flavored with corn syrup or other added sugars
  • White bread: Low in nutrients, too much consumption of white bread can contribute to obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Better to avoid it.
  • Cookies, cakes, pastries: How bad can one cookie be, right? Well, add one small cookie every day to your diet—with no other changes—and you’ll gain more than six pounds in a year. So there’s that.
  • Candy and chocolate: A single milk chocolate bar has 26 grams of carbohydrates. That’s a lot. But what would life be without chocolate, so a small piece now and again won’t have lingering ill-effects.
  • French fries and potato chips: Potatoes are good carbs. These yummy offshoots aren’t, unfortunately.

A Diet to Try

For many people, the ultra-low-carb diet is the solution they’ve been searching for when it comes to losing weight. But there’s no need to ditch all carbs to be healthy or lose weight. Just choose better quality ones.
Mediterranean-style diets are great examples of how “good” carbs can be incorporated into a sensible eating lifestyle. The carbohydrates in Mediterranean-style diets tend to come from unrefined sources like whole wheat and beans. These diets emphasize eating fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans, nuts, legumes, olive oil, and flavorful herbs and spices; fish and seafood at least a couple of times a week; and poultry, eggs, cheese and yogurt in moderation, while saving sweets and red meat for special occasions.

Here’s to a Healthy Lifestyle in 2019!

Whether you choose to jump on the last car of the low-carb train or if you decide to take the path of selecting good carbs as part of an overall healthy eating plan, it’s a journey. At the end of the day, you’re making choices that are best for you, your lifestyle and the goals you want to achieve. And before you embark on any new eating plan it’s best to have a conversation with your doctor to help guide you along the way.


Registered dietitian Mojgan Ehtemam shares these key components to achieve healthy eating patterns and lifestyle:

Balance your calories

  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
  • Consume a healthy eating pattern within your calorie level

Stay active and exercise

  • 2 ½ to 5 hours per week of moderate to intense physical activity
  • 2 or more days a week of muscle strengthening exercise

Limit added sugar to 45 grams per day

  • Limit intake of sodas and sweetened drinks, desserts and candy
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks

Limit saturated fat to 20 grams per day

  • Limit cheese and high-fat dairy products
  • Limit red and processed meats
  • Reduce portions of animal proteins

Limit sodium to 2,300 mg per day

  • Choose low sodium foods
  • Season with herbs and spices instead of salt

Avoid trans-fats and hydrogenated fats

  • Read labels and watch out for hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredient list
  • May be found in some bakery-type foods and snacks, margarine spreads, shortening, artificial creamers and fried foods

Aim for at least 25 grams of fiber per day

  • Include whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts and seeds