The Good & the Bad of Carbs

Recently carbohydrates have become the bad guys when it comes to healthy eating and weight-loss. This is really unfair on the little energy powerhouses. Not only are carbohydrates such as pasta my favourite of the food groups but they really are not as bad as they are being made out to be
Carbohydrates are a major source of energy and are recommended as the primary source of energy in a healthy diet. But too many carbohydrates can increase your energy intake and therefore lead to weight gain. So how do we decide if they are bad or good?

Let’s start with what carbohydrates are:
Carbohydrates or more fondly known as carbs are one of three macronutrients. The two other macronutrients being protein and fat. It is recommended that carbohydrates make up 45-65% of an adults total energy intake.1
Carbohydrates as a group can be broken down into three basic groups:

  • Sugars are short carbohydrate molecules. The simplest form that carbs come in, these include glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose
  • Starches are longer molecules which usually break down to glucose. These are found in most carbs such as bread, rice, pasta, etc.
  • Fibre is also a carb although humans cannot digest it, the bacteria in the gut can make use of it for energy. These fibres are often referred to as prebiotics because they feed the good bacteria in the gut. Now that we know the basics on these carbs, let’s get a little more complexed.2

There are many foods that contain a combination of carbohydrates but not all carbohydrates are equal. Carbs differ in how they affect our health, some may have good effects and some may have negative effects and when it comes to the big carbohydrate debate, the differences are what we need to understand.

Let’s start with the black sheep in the carb family. Refined carbohydrates are the ones giving carbs a bad name. These carbs are processed which removes much of the fibre and nutrients. These include foods such as sugar-sweetened beverages, white flour baked goods such as bread, cakes and pastries, white rice, sweets and others.

It is easier to overdo energy intake from refined carbohydrates because the energy is in a concentrated form and yet you don’t get many nutrients from these refined carbs. They are often referred to as empty calories. Intake of excessive amounts of refined sugar has shown to lead to health problems such as dental caries, obesity and type 2 diabetes.3

Good carbs are referred to as whole, complex or non-refined. Foods such as vegetables, fresh fruit, whole grains and legumes are considered whole because they haven’t been processed or overly processed and the fibre hasn’t been taken out.

Whole carbs are shown to be more beneficial in providing nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fibre. Many studies have shown health benefits of whole carbs in diseases such as diabetes and hypertension and in weight management.1.3

Essentially the focus should be placed on the quality of carbohydrates consumed. There are other factors to look at when choosing carbohydrates such as the Glycaemic Index (GI) which is a measure of how your blood sugar levels are affected by carbohydrate-containing foods. When choosing carbohydrates aim for low GI foods which will provide sustained energy. FUTURELIFE® has a vast range of products which are low GI and contain dietary fibre such as FUTURELIFE® HIGH ENERGY Smart Food™, HIGH PROTEIN Smart Food™, ZERO, High Protein SmartBars, Smart Bread™, and Smart Drink™.4

Keep the following tips in mind when choosing carbohydrates:

  • Choose high fibre cereals made from whole grains such as FUTURELIFE® Smart Fibre™ 2in1 which is made with natural wheat bran
  • Look for low GI variants and those that are endorsed by Diabetes South Africa or the GI Foundation of South Africa (GIFSA)
  • Eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables each day
  • Avoid highly refined carbs such as white bread and sugary pastries
  • Drink water instead of sugar sweetened beverages5

No, because we need the energy provided by glucose from carbs, as well as the fibre content, it’s not recommended to cut carbs out completely in any diet but as we all differ our carb intake and tolerance is different too. Lower carb diets may prove beneficial for individuals living with diabetes or individuals trying to lose weight, however long term effects are not well researched currently, and it’s important to be cautious as to what is being consumed to replace these carbs. Always consult a registered dietitian to help you individualise your requirements3.

In conclusion, carbs in their most natural, fibre-rich form are generally healthier compared to their processed, low-fibre form. Stay away from processed, overly refined carbs. The ultimate intake depends on you as an individual based on age, gender and health. So instead of branding all carbs bad, get to know some of the good guys by reading other article on good carbs by following the links below all found on our website


  1. Krause’s Food, Nutrition, & Diet Therapy 11th Edition – 2004 by Sylvia Escott-Stump L. Kathleen Mahan (Author)
  2. Krause’s Food & the Nutrition Care Process, 13th Edition by L. Kathleen Mahan MS RD CDE (Author), Janice L Raymond MS RD CD (Author), Sylvia Escott-Stump MA RD LDN (Author)