Complex Carbohydrates: Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs

National Dietary Guidelines and many heath “experts” have long told us to load up on complex carbohydrates, particularly grains (especially “whole grains”) and cereal products. This has lead to a lot of misinformation and confusion about complex carbohydrates and good carbs vs bad carbs.

Unfortunately, there’s a whole lot of misinformation behind this advice. These recommendations, in combination with low-fat and low-saturated fat recommendations, have sent our disease rates soaring and waistlines expanding over the past hundred years.

If you feel confused and frustrated about what’s “healthy,” it’s not your fault–we’re so inundated with marketing messages about the supposed health benefits of complex carbohydrates from grains, legumes and beans. Ten (+1) Under the Radar Food Magazines That Will Inspire You This Spring BioandChic. 

In this article I offer you clarity, as I debunk widespread nutrition hype by

  • revealing the ideal and unideal sources of complex carbohydrates
  • how unideal sources of complex carbohydrates negatively affect our hunger levels, cravings, fat-storage, and disease-risk
  • the best ways to eat complex carbohydrates for optimal health.

Complex carbohydrates aren’t evil. They just have their place. It’s our job to get informed and put ’em in their place. Snap.

Carbohydrates, Inflammation and Disease

Sugars are a kind of simple carbohydrate, present in refined foods, and naturally in fruits.

Starch, another kind of carbohydrate, a complex carbohydrate, present in higher quantities in grains, legumes and beans breaks down into sugar (specifically glucose) at varying rates in the body. For example, starch in brown rice and beans may convert to sugar more slowly than starch in white rice or the simple sugar in a banana, but they all convert to sugar at some point. (I discuss the flaws of the Glycemic Index in my book.)

Sugar from both sources (simple and converted complex carbohydrates) mess with blood sugar and insulin, which mess with our bodies’ inflammatory response. Remember: inflammation is the root of most disease.

See, sugar raises blood sugar, which causes insulin resistance, which causes unhealthy fat storage in the liver, increases “bad” cholesterol, and makes blood cells (platelets) more likely to clot.

“…[T]he obvious, simple answer—and this is still ruled by science, and we have Occam’s razor here: Never multiply explanations when you have a simple explanation that hasn’t been refuted. The obvious answer is carbohydrates drive insulin. Insulin drives fat accumulation, and we’re getting fatter because of the kind of carbohydrates we’re consuming.”

—Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease, and contributing correspondent for Science magazine

Sugar also increases levels of cortisol (AKA the “stress hormone”) in the blood, which in turn cause all manner of inflammation, the root of disease (think inflamed artery walls which restrict blood flow, leading to everything from losing skin’s glow to high blood pressure and heart disease).

Sugar also sugar lowers our immune-response and feeds pathogens.

One-third of certain kinds of cancerous tumors contain insulin receptors (six to ten times more receptors than normal cells) (1) (2) (3). Because insulin is made to “collect” sugar from the blood, the simple act of lowering sugar and starch in your diet is the biggest duh for hardcore cancer prevention, or to “starve” certain existing cancers.

The Fiber Hype

Think whole grains are loaded with fiber? Think again.

I won’t even talk about processed breads and cereals that simply add fiber because these “foods” are so full of junk and so devoid of not just nutrients, but naturally-occurring fiber as well.

What I will talk about is “natural” foods, like grains, and how they’re some of the least worthy sources of fiber.

Helpful for bowel health, regularity, and the ability to move waste out of the body, fiber is a kind of carbohydrate your body doesn’t digest the way it does starches and sugars. While starches and sugars pack a caloric punch of 4 calories per gram, fiber packs around 0-2 calories per gram, depending on if it comes in the form of soluble or insoluble fiber (yet again we see a calorie is not simply a calorie–check out my article 6 Reasons Why Your Should Stop Counting Calories to Lose Weight for more on the inaccuracy of caloric measurements). 

So how do we figure out what’s a fiber-rich food?


We compare the amount of starch to fiber in, say, grains, legumes and beans (with a colon sandwiched between the two numbers). Here are a few examples (numbers are approximate):

  • 1 cup cooked white rice (long-grain) = 40-45g carbs : 1g fiber
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice (long-grain) = 40-45g carbs : 2-4g fiber
  • 1 cup cooked lentils (legumes) = 40g carbs : 16g fiber 
  • 1 cup black beans = 41g carbs: 15g fiber

Now compare the above numbers to those of veggies:

  • 1 cup broccoli (cooked) = 10g carbs: 6g fiber
  • 1 cup string beans (cooked) = 10g carbs : 4g fiber
  • 1 cup sliced portabella mushrooms (grilled) = 6g carbs : 3g fiber
  • 1 cup zucchini (cooked) = 7g carbs : 3g fiber


Notice how veggies’ total-carbohydrate to fiber-carbohydrate ratios are much smaller than those of grains, legumes and beans?

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap
This is neither a smart nor satisfying breakfast

Vegetables & Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs

Even though vegetables are considered complex carbohydrates, like those found in grains and beans, our bodies like them more because they

  • contain less carbohydrates in general
  • have the lowest ratio of starch to fiber
  • break down into simple sugars slowly
  • only minimally affect insulin.

The amount of vegetables that should be consumed will vary from person to person and from time to time. My approach, including my approach in my program TOTAL CLEANSE BOOTCAMP, isn’t about rigid numbers; it’s about learning how foods work with our bodies, and cultivating a relationship with our bodies so we can listen and respond to their ever-changing needs.

In general, low-starch vegetables should make up a good portion of a your diet and comprise the majority of carbohydrates consumed daily.

When you’re in-the-know, you eat veggies with fats, like butter and coconut oil, to enable and maximize our bodies’ ability to absorb all the fat-soluble vitamins and minerals in these veggies. (My article Why Is Saturated Fat Good for You? 6 Reasons (PART ONE) and PART TWO dish about the ideal sources of fat to pair with veggies–and with anything and everything we eat.)

Carbohydrates, Energy and the Hunger Button

Contrary to ideas we’re been fed for decades, most of us live sedentary-enough lifestyles that we don’t need higher levels of carbohydrates (complex or simple) for “quick” energy. 

What’s more, we don’t realize there are other sources of energy (and this isn’t our fault–we’re so inundated with marketing messages about complex carbohydrates as the best source of energy).

Scientifically-speaking, there’s no denying that (in contrast to both simple and complex carbohydrates) fat and protein

  • give us the most sustained energy (fat offers the most, over protein)
  • are more filling and provide longer-lasting satiety than carbohydrates (protein will provide the quickest feeling of satiety, but fat offers the longest-lasting satiety)
  • regulate blood sugar and insulin (carbohydrates negatively impact them; fat is most stabilizing) 
  • regulate our bodies’ inflammatory response (remember: carbohydrates trigger inflammation, and inflammation is the root of most disease)
  • don’t get stored in annoying places (i.e. our mid-sections) when we consume more than our bodies burn, unlike carbohydrates
  • help us burn stored-fat instead of sugar for energy. When we eat a fat-rich diet, with moderate protein, and get our carbohydrates mainly from low-starch veggies, we give our body a chance to burn stored fat instead of stored sugar for energy (because we don’t have much of the latter). According to Dr. Richar Veech (the Big Kahuna in this field, who studied medicine at Harvard and earned his PhD at Oxford with Nobel Laureate Hans Krebs), both the heart and brain run 25 percent more efficiently from burning fat than on sugar.
Image courtesy of njaj
The Cereal Grains Industry: Up Close and Personal

Carbohydrates Do Some Majorly Undesirable Things We Can Live Without

US Dietary Guidelines consider 300g carbohydrates per day “normal,” and any carbohydrate intake below 130g per day as “low carbohydrate.” Unfortunately, most Americans eat way more than 130g per day. 

I say “unfortuantely” because carbohydrates (even complex carbohydrates)

  • disrupt the chemicals and hormones that regulate blood sugar and satiety (including insulin, cortisol, ghrelin and leptin), making us want to eat more, and causing us to gain weight
  • become sugar in the body, not just from simple carbohydrates like fruits, but from complex carbohydrates like whole grains, and even legumes and beans
  • promote unhealthy fat storage. When we eat carbohydrates in excess, we store them as fat, and our body stores them in targeted places, like our midsections
  • can be addictive. One major study reveals satisfaction isn’t sweet: “Findings clearly demonstrate intense sweetness [from both natural sugars and artificial sweeteners] can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and addicted individuals.” Wow.

Essentially, carbohydrates turn on the hunger button in the brain and body, telling our bodies to eat more (generally more carbs) and to store excess carbs as fat, and heightening disease-risk.

On the other hand, dietary fat and protein turn off the hunger button, thereby preventing us from eating anything in excess, which means no unwanted fat-storage (like I said earlier, dietary fat does this most intensely, even more so than protein, and its effects are the longest-lasting of the two). 

The Right Way to Eat Grains, Legumes and Beans (When You Do Eat Them)

Grains, legumes and beans are not off-limits, but are ideally eaten less frequently, in smaller portions, always with plenty of fat and some quality protein. They should be prepared via soaking or sprouting to decrease antinutrients, like phytic acid which can disrupt mineral-absorption (though these preparation practices don’t alter the starch-content much). I discuss this in-depth in my book.

Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs: The Lesson

Graduates of my training program, TOTAL CLEANSE BOOTCAMP, know from experience that lowering grain consumption (as well as legumes and beans) and instead eating mostly veggies for complex carbohydrates, plus plenty of fat and protein, make their bodies feel good and run not just well, but dynamically! (TOTAL CLEANSE BOOTCAMP’s programming goes beyond these basics–keep reading)

MAIN TAKEAWAY: Get your carbohydrates mostly from veggies. Don’t fear fat–embrace it. Make sure you are eating plenty of quality protein, especially from animal sources. The number one reason to make this lifestyle change isn’t intellectual; it’s experiential: you simply feel better and more satisfied.

RELATED ARTICLES: How Many Carbs Can You Have on a Low Carb Diet? Think you know? Don’t be so sure!

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Background of feature image: “Bread Slice” image copyright SOMMAI.
“Corn Flakes” image copyright rakratchada torsap.
“Grain Field Harvesting” image copyright njaj