The Difference in Break Down of Good and Bad Carbohydrates

The Difference in Break Down of Good and Bad Carbohydrates


The Difference in Break Down of Good and Bad CarbohydratesIn recent years the nutrition world has uncovered a new cuss word:


Carbohydrates are vilified by many popular diets including Atkins, Paleo, South Beach, Zone Diet, and the rising star diet of Ketosis.

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With the rise of obesity, this macronutrient has been the main excuse for why obesity is becoming a pandemic.

It has become ingrained in our nutrition beliefs that in order to lose weight, carbs must be executed from the daily diet. Who needs them anyway? They pack on the pounds, they spike your blood sugar levels, which means it causes insulin to spike also. Carbohydrates are bad.


We’re not dealing with the plague here, we’re dealing with an entire food source which has been cited as imperative to human development and evolution since the Stone Age. Carbohydrates come in forms of starches like potatoes and dietary fibers which can be found in green leafy vegetables. Everything we eat increases insulin in the blood stream. Did you know proteins also spike insulin levels? In fact, insulin spikes are even greater with protein than it is with carbohydrates so proteins must be bad too. [1]

To eat healthy, it’s essential to keep all three macronutrients in the diet: fats, proteins and carbohydrates.

But there’s huge difference in good and bad carbohydrates and many dieters fail to see the difference in good carbohydrates vs bad carbohydrates. Are all carbs created equal? Do all carbohydrates really lead to obesity, diabetes and other diseases?

It’s time for the carbohydrate to make a come back with a renewed sense of purpose and accomplishment for all it has contributed to human existence.

I’d like to start off with outlining the differences between carbohydrates. There are significant differences between good and bad carbohydrates, and it comes down to structure of the compound molecule. The stronger the bond the slower time it takes to breakdown.

Carbohydrates are composed of carbon and water. Hence carbo is carbon and hydrate is water. [2] A carbohydrate with more than 10 carbon/water units is considered a complex carbohydrate, and one with less than 10 is a simple carbohydrate. [3] To make this a little simpler to digest, carbohydrates with a longer chain— 10 or more— are broken down a little slower and are typically considered healthier.

Carbohydrates are broken down in the digestive system into glucose. Glucose is a simple sugar, and extremely vital in how the body operates. Your body uses glucose for cellular energy in the form of an energy compound called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). [4] So to have a strong, healthy and functioning body you need carbohydrates, but you need the complex, and strong bonded carbohydrates to keep your endocrine system in balance. Here’s why:

There’s two hormones that play a vital role when it comes to dealing with carbohydrates and glucose. Think of these two hormones like bouncers at the club. If you approach the door, calm and relaxed, there will be no issues and you’ll be allowed to enter. But if you show up to the club already looking like you’ve partied too much, the two bouncers are going to have a real issue and cause you some problem.

Depending on what kinds of carbohydrates you ingest directly dictates the hormone levels of insulin and leptin. Insulin is released to regulate our blood sugar levels and help navigate the energy into our cells. Then if there’s excessive energy, insulin stores it as fat. When glucose levels go down, insulin does too. Leptin on the other hand is a hormone from the fat cells to signal to the brain—specifically the hypothalamus— when there’s enough fat stored. Both hormones are prudent to the sensation of hunger and energy levels. [5]

You don’t want to resist these two hormones because they will cause a lot of health problem if you do. [6] Insulin resistance is commonly associated with type II diabetes, and leptin resistance leads to obesity.

How do you determine which carbohydrates to allow into your club and which ones need to to be sent away?

Well the molecular bonding of the carbohydrate is important, but who honestly looks at their food as a science project? But it is really easy to differentiate good carbohydrates that will fuel your body correctly versus bad carbohydrates that will leave you malnourished.

The best way to weigh the difference in whether it’s a good carbohydrate or bad is by determining if it can be found in nature. For the most part, healthy forms of carbohydrates come in their “natural” form or close to it.

Besides offering your body the necessary energy to function correctly, carbohydrates contain a plethora of vital vitamins, nutrients and antioxidants that help fight diseases and promote a healthy metabolism, but they also include dietary fibers which are crucial to having healthy bowel movements. [7]

Here’s a list of some good carbohydrates to include in your next meal prep:

Swiss ChardAsparagusBrussel SproutsKale
TomatoesSweet PotatoesYamsTubers
Steel Cut OatsBarleyBrown RiceQuinoa
Whole Wheat PastaBranCornPeas
LegumesPeanutsGreek Yogurt*Whole Wheat Bread

There’s many more that are not listed here, but I believe you get the idea. As you can see there’s a lot of options to incorporate healthy and good for you carbohydrates into your diet without packing on the pounds. But how these fruits, vegetables, whole grains, oats, and dairy products are prepared can seriously send them to the bad side of the carbohydrate spectrum.

Here’s some examples of bad carbohydrates to try and avoid:

Table SugarSodaPastriesWhite Bread
White RiceWhite PastaDessertsCandy
Gummi SnacksPotato ChipsCrackersCorn Syrup
Artificial SyrupsWhite FlourWhite PotatoesSugary Cereals
Fruit JuiceCookiesIce CreamPackaged snacks

One giant and obvious difference between good and bad carbohydrates is preparation and processing. Foods that have gone through extensive processing have altered the molecular compounds of the food. To preserve the food on the shelf there’s additives and often times the way it’s prepared factors into the healthiness of the food. A good example are potatoes. Red potatoes are considered a good starch to incorporate into the diet, yet if the potato is sliced and fried and made into potato chips or french fries, it no longer is beneficial to the diet because of the increased fat content. [8]

Another example can be the healthy breakfast option of the grapefruit. Grapefruits are tremendously nutritious and can help aid in digestion, and if eaten on a regular basis can help rev the metabolism. But if adding table sugar to the top of it can allow for spikes in insulin because table sugar is a form of sucrose and sucrose is a chemically altered carbohydrate that is broken down quickly in the digestive system and send the body into a frenzy.

But again, no one looks at their foods like a science project but the complexity of molecules do determine whether the carbohydrate is slow burning or will result in blood sugar spikes. Sucrose is unnatural so foods with sucrose—table sugar— will spike blood sugar levels. So ice creams, sodas, pastries, etc. fall into this category. However, lactose, also two-bonded sugar molecule, is found naturally in dairy. Because of excessive sugars in foods and how it breaks down in the body, this is where carbohydrates receive their notoriety of causing obesity and other health diseases.

Carbohydrates can be broken down into subtypes based on the complexity of the macromolecules:

  • Monosaccharides—simple sugars— glucose, fructose (fruit sugar)
  • Disaccharides— two monosaccharides combined which have undergone a chemical change like dehydration to be connected— table sugar, lactose (milk sugar)
  • Polysaccharides— long chain of monosaccharides combined— starch, glycogen

The complexity of these molecules determines the blood sugar level of the carbohydrates by being scaled on the Glycemic Index. If the number is high on the glycemic index, that means the spike in blood sugar which then means the spike in insulin and leptin.

Though fruit sugars are considered a simple sugar, fruits are good carbohydrates. Arguably lots of fruits also need to be consumed in moderation but all things considered the amount of antioxidants in berries and the overall benefits outweigh the sugar factor.

If your food can be found in its natural state, usually it is considered to be a healthy carbohydrate. Many look at carbohydrates as hamburger buns, sodas, French fries and cupcakes, and yes those items 100% add to the rampant obesity problem, but how can you justify lumping broccoli and asparagus in there too?

It’s so important to look at how your body breaks down and processes the carbohydrates you consume. Sodas, gummy snacks and candy are carbohydrates containing empty calories. Serve nothing to allow the body to function except for simple sugars to enter the digestive system and wreak havoc on the endocrine system. But strawberries, bananas, and mangos contain antioxidants, fiber, polyphenols and other vitamins and minerals the body can absorb and utilize to function at its best. [9]

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[1] National Center for Biotechnology Information:
[2] Chemistry for Biologists:
[3] National Academy of Sports Medicine 5th edition
[4] Science How Stuff Works:
[5] Olumia Life:
[6] Mercola:
[8] Everyday Health:
[9] Precision Nutrition:


About the Author Emily Robinson

Emily has spent the last 8 years comparing, reviewing and analyzing ingredients in the supplements industry. She has worked extensively with dieticians, nutritionists and personal trainers to separate fact from fiction and help people achieve their fitness goals. In her free time she works and enjoys the outdoors with her husband and 2 children. You can contact her via the "About Us" page.

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