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Good Carbohydrates & Bad Carbohydrates – What’s the Difference?

To many people who are aiming to lose weight, the thought of good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates will probably sound like a strange notion. After all, carbs are those foods that make you fat, right?

So how can there be any such thing as good carbohydrates? Surely they’re all bad carbohydrates, aren’t they?

Well, as a matter of fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is, we’ve become so accustomed to hearing uninformed people making silly statements like “carbs are fattening” and “you should cut down on carbs” that over time, they’ve unjustifiably earned the bad boy image.

This misunderstanding has arisen for two main reasons:

  • Firstly, the majority of our food intake is made up of carbohydrates, so naturally when something goes wrong, the finger gets pointed at them. This is despite the fact that they contain less than half the number of calories per gram of fats.
  • And secondly, the vast majority of unhealthy snacks that are commonly available are carbohydrate foods, which means that bad carbohydrates are always in plentiful supply everywhere we look.

So at the end of the day good carbohydrates have unfortunately copped a raw deal, which, unlike bad carbohydrates, they really don’t deserve. In fact, quite the contrary.

Carbohydrates are actually our body’s preferred choice of energy. You can consider them to be premium fuel for your body.

As long as you choose the right ones, that is. Choosing the wrong carbohydrates will have the potential to set back your weight loss progress quite seriously.

So as you can appreciate then, knowing how to tell the difference between good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates is a vital element to the success of your weight loss program.

The whole subject of carbohydrates can get quite complicated because there are a number of ways of classifying them, and a number of ways of ranking their quality. And when you add all the misinformation out there into the mix, what you have is a recipe for confusion.

When I first started losing weight I found the whole subject of carbohydrates very complicated, so if that’s how you’re feeling right now, I can assure you you’re not alone.

Don’t be concerned though, because in this article I’m going to break it all down for you into simple, plain English. This will clarify things for you and have you identifying good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates quickly and easily in no time at all.

Natural and Refined Carbohydrates

Without a doubt, the most important distinction to make between different carbohydrates is to identify whether they’re natural or refined.

Natural carbohydrates are basically foods which come in the form that nature delivers them, with no processing or modification by humans. An example is brown rice. This is rice in its natural form, as rice grains are when they’re removed from the plant.

Refined carbohydrates start out as being natural, but then undergo some form of refining process before being delivered to you. The refining can be carried out for a variety of reasons – usually to enhance flavor and/or texture of the food. An example of refined carbohydrates is white rice, which begins life as brown rice, but then has the bran, or the outer shell, and the germ, or the seed, removed.

Natural carbohydrates are always good carbohydrates (Mother Nature knows best!).

They can, however, be made bad if you make poor choices about how to cook or prepare them. Example – French fries. Refined carbohydrates aren’t always bad carbohydrates – some are OK and some are really terrible – but even so, the good ones certainly aren’t as good as they could otherwise be.

Now, refined carbohydrates are sometimes also referred to as processed carbohydrates. This can sometimes confuse things a little however, because in my opinion, they’re not exactly the same thing.

Refining implies the removal of impurities, or something you don’t want. In the case of rice, this is the bran and the germ. These are removed to enhance the appearance, taste and texture of the rice. The problem is, these contain the bulk of rice’s nutrients, so in refining the rice, you’re actually making what was once a good carbohydrate, a lesser-quality one.

Unfortunately, this is the common theme with refined carbohydrates. The unwanted products within the foods are the nutrient-rich parts, which are sacrificed for the benefit of taste and texture.

Processing, on the other hand, isn’t always destructive to the food. In fact, sometimes it’s actually beneficial. It really depends on what kind of processing is actually done. For example, wheat bran breakfast cereals are made up from bran that’s removed from wheat grains. Now, there’s no denying this is a processed food – wheat bran isn’t found in nature like this on its own.

But by taking this highly-nutritious, high-fiber component of wheat and processing it into a new food, you’re essentially creating a great carbohydrate source. Other examples of good carbohydrates that are processed are whole grain bread and whole grain pasta – of course, neither of these are found in nature, growing on trees.

So, to summarize the discussion so far, let’s look once again at the three possibilities we have in carbohydrates:

  1. Natural Carbohydrates – These are ALWAYS good carbohydrates as they come to you, however, it’s still possible to make them less healthy by preparing them inappropriately.
  2. Refined Carbohydrates – These can range from being fairly good carbohydrates to bad carbohydrates, depending on the type of refining that’s done. They can never quite be the A-Grade foods that natural carbohydrates are.
  3. Processed Carbohydrates – I don’t want to complicate things by adding a third category of carbohydrates, it’s really not necessary. But just be aware that some carbohydrates that are processed by humans can in fact be good carbohydrates.

Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

All carbohydrates start life as natural carbohydrates, and they may or may not be then refined or processed in some way. But either way, they can also be classified as either simple or complex, depending on their chemical makeup.

Simple carbohydrates are also referred to as sugars, and are made up of either one or two combined sugar molecules, so they have a molecular structure that?s quite small.

Complex carbohydrates on the other hand, are made up of long chains of three or more sugar molecules joined together, so they have a much larger and more complicated molecular structure.

Both simple and complex carbohydrates can be either good carbohydrates or bad carbohydrates. When it comes to weight loss however, complex carbohydrates do have a distinct advantage.

Because of their more complicated molecular structure, your body needs to do more work in breaking the bonds between their molecules so that they can be absorbed through your intestines. So as a result, complex carbohydrates have a significantly higher thermic effect than do simple carbohydrates. They have a thermic effect of about 20%, in fact.

The Thermic Effect of Food (TEF) basically refers to the amount of energy your body expends in digesting and absorbing a food, as well as disposing of any unused waste products. What this means is that turning food into energy creates heat and actually burns calories. Or in other words, eating is thermogenic.

So in the case of complex carbohydrates, about 20% of the calories they provide you with are actually used up in digesting and processing the food. That means you’re actually only gaining 80% of the food’s calories in net terms, and your body is working off the other 20% in the digestion process.

This is one of the reasons why complex carbohydrates are so important on a weight loss eating plan, and should ideally make up two-thirds to three-quarters of your carbohydrate intake.

It doesn’t mean you should cut out simple carbohydrates altogether. Remember, they can be good carbohydrates too – they provide some very valuable nutrients. It just means you should focus more so on complex carbohydrates for best weight loss results.

Good Carbohydrates and Bad Carbohydrates

OK then, so now that we’ve identified two families of carbohydrates (simple and complex), and two ways in which they can be delivered to your door (natural or refined), it means we have 4 possible varieties to choose from.

Let’s take a close look at each one in turn, and see what they each have to offer.

Natural Complex Carbohydrates

First of all, let’s look closely at natural complex carbohydrates. These are without a doubt at the top of the carbohydrate heap.

When it comes to good carbohydrates, natural complex carbohydrates are king.

As I mentioned earlier, natural carbohydrates are always good, and complex carbohydrates are the preferred choice for weight loss. Most of your carbohydrate intake should therefore come from this group.

Now, there are actually two different types of natural complex carbohydrate foods, starches and dietary fiber. Both of these are very important in your diet, both for weight loss and for your health in general.


Starch is actually the form in which plants store their energy. And almost all of the calories you get from natural complex carbohydrates come from starches. Basically what you’re doing then is consuming the energy from plants as your own premium fuel source.

The following is a list of foods that are sources of natural complex carbohydrates. They provide you with energy primarily from the starch they contain:

  • Oats
  • Sweet Potatoes/Yams
  • Brown Rice
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Corn

Dietary Fiber

Dietary fiber is really essential in your diet, as it provides you with a long list of health and weight loss benefits. There are 2 types of dietary fiber – soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber is particularly beneficial for weight loss – it slows down the absorption of energy from your food into your blood (I’ll talk more about this later), and it causes you to feel full by combining with water and forming a gel-like substance in your stomach.

Soluble fiber also assists in weight loss in ways that aren’t fully understood yet. If ever there was a weight loss “wonderfood” then soluble fiber would be it.

One of the reasons that natural carbohydrates are such good carbohydrates is that they provide you with lots of nutrients, including fiber. The list of starch foods above therefore, are also good sources of fiber.

There’s another group of complex carbohydrate foods that includes great sources of fiber, however these are low in starch content and therefore low in calories.

This group is generally made up of green vegetables. Some examples of these foods are:

  • Broccoli
  • Green Beans
  • Spinach
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Asparagus
  • Celery
  • Lettuce
  • Squash

Refined Complex Carbohydrates

Refined complex carbohydrates can vary quite a bit in terms of their quality, depending on how much and what type of refining is done. More often than not however, they’re categorized as bad carbohydrates.

Pretty Good Ones

Here are a few examples of refined, but still good carbohydrates, in what I believe is increasing order of quality:

  • White Rice
  • Wholewheat Crackers
  • Wholemeal Bread
  • Wholewheat/Wholegrain Pasta

White rice has had a lot of its best nutrients and its fiber stripped out, making it far lesser quality than its natural form. It also has a lower thermic effect than natural, brown rice as a result. I guess you can call it an OK carbohydrate.

The remaining three foods are quite nutritionally valuable foods, and therefore good carbohydrates, since nothing has been stripped out of the natural grains. Their grains are, however, pulverized into flour as part of their processing. This makes the food more calorie-dense and easier for your body to break down and digest – again, reducing its thermic effect from its natural form.

Bad Ones

So, what about the bad carbohydrates of the refined complex group? That’s easy – they’re mostly any foods that contain white flour. Although there are also others as well though.

Some examples of this type of carbohydrates are:

  • White Bread
  • White Cracker Biscuits
  • White Pasta
  • Rice Crackers
  • Noodles
  • Corn Chips
  • Bread Sticks
  • Pastry

These foods have had most of their nutrients stripped from their grains, and the grains have been pulverized into flour – two black marks!

This makes the foods calorie-dense, nutrient-poor, quick to absorb into blood sugar (more about this later), and light work for your body to digest. This last point means they have a low thermic effect. Very low, in fact around about only 3-5%. All in all, they’re very bad carbohydrates.

Good Ones

Now, before we move away from complex carbohydrates, remember how I talked earlier about complex carbohydrates that are processed, but very good carbohydrates nevertheless?

A few examples of these are:

  • Rolled Oats
  • Wheat Bran Breakfast Cereal
  • Wholegrain Bread

Rolled oats are basically oat groats (the inner portion of the oat kernel) that have been rolled flat. Not much processing huh? So really, they can almost be considered totally natural. An even better form of oats are steel cut oats. These have been cut into only two or three pieces by steel, rather than rolling. Both are very, very good carbohydrates.

Wheat bran breakfast cereal is highly processed, but in a good way. The nutrient-rich bran is taken from wheat grains (which of course are then refined further to make bad carbohydrate products) and processed into a cereal form. Talk about concentrated nutrients and fiber! Really good stuff.

Wholegrain bread is also a very good carbohydrate. It’s essentially made of wholemeal flour, which, as we discussed earlier, is refined but still has all of its nutrients, and also has whole grains and whole grain pieces added as well. They often times contain a variety of different grains too.

Natural Simple Carbohydrates

Again, because these are natural, they’re good carbohydrates. The only downside they have over natural complex carbohydrates is that they have a lower thermic effect, and so your body burns up less calories digesting these. This makes them less desirable for weight loss.

That being said, natural simple carbohydrates provide you with lots of nutrients and, in the case of fruits, often times fiber as well. So these carbohydrates shouldn’t be excluded from your weight loss diet – just controlled.

The major sources of natural simple carbohydrates (natural sugars) are:

  • Most Fruits (Fructose)
  • Honey (Fructose)
  • Milk (Lactose, Galactose)
  • Dairy Products (Lactose, Galactose)
  • Malt Sugar (Maltose)

Refined Simple Carbohydrates

That brings us to the final group – the real bad boys of carbohydrates.

Refined simple carbohydrates are the very worst of bad carbohydrates, are responsible for widespread weight and health problems, and should be excluded from your diet as much as possible.

These carbohydrates are commonly known as “refined sugars”, or just “sugar”, and there’s absolutely nothing good about them. They’re very high in calories, are usually completely devoid of nutrients, and have even been found to have addictive qualities.

The most common example of refined simple carbohydrates is table sugar, which is 100% pure carbohydrate, and therefore very calorie-dense. Some examples of foods where you’ll find these added in significant amounts are:

  • Desserts
  • Soft Drinks (Sodas)
  • Cordial
  • Flavored Milk
  • Breakfast Cereals (even many of the supposedly healthy ones)
  • Chocolate
  • Biscuits
  • Cakes
  • Pastry
  • Ice Cream Topping
  • Sweets & Candy
  • Snack Bars (even the supposedly healthy ones)

This list could go on forever!

High GI and Low GI Carbohydrates

The Glycemic Index, or just GI, is something that always comes up in any discussion about good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates. Some people believe that this is the main criteria for judging the quality of a carbohydrate – low GI good, high GI bad. Simple as that.

But of course, as we all know, things are never that simple.

Whenever you consume carbohydrates, the energy they provide is broken down and transferred into your bloodstream in the form of blood glucose, or blood sugar. The Glycemic Index is simply a measure of how fast that process – known as the glycemic response, takes place.

Carbohydrates that cause your blood sugar level to rise quickly are given a high GI value, and those that cause your blood sugar level to rise slowly are given a low GI value.

A slow rise is blood sugar is the much preferred situation, both from the point of view of your health, and your weight loss. If you’d like to learn more about the Glycemic Index and exactly why this is so, you’ll find some very informative articles by taking a look around this website.

Now, contrary to what some believe, while the GI of a carbohydrate has some importance, it’s not the be all and end all. The reason is that in a normal, healthy diet, the GI has a much lower influence than some people realize. This is because carbohydrates aren’t (or at least, shouldn’t be) eaten on their own.

And when you eat any carbohydrate with other foods such as proteins, fats and fiber, they have the effect of lowering the GI of the carbohydrate significantly.

In other words, it’s the GI of the entire meal that matters, not the GI of the individual carbohydrates.

This is one of the reasons why eating carbohydrates on their own (rather than as part of a balanced meal) is so destructive – they produce a large glycemic response.

Think about how many “convenient” but unhealthy carbohydrate snacks are out there (refined complex carbohydrates, and worse still, refined simple carbohydrates) that are regularly eaten on their own. When you consider that most are also so high in calories and low in nutrients, it’s not hard to see why we’re in the middle of an ill-health and obesity epidemic.

But anyhow, the lesson here is that if you’re eating well-balanced meals, which you should be if you’re trying to lose weight, then GI is of lesser importance, and should only be used as a secondary indicator of what are good carbohydrates and what are bad carbohydrates.

Good Carbohydrates and Bad Carbohydrates in a Nutshell

OK so to summarize then, the process for choosing good carbohydrates is very simple and straightforward.

It’s simply a matter of following 5 basic steps:

  1. Focus primarily on natural carbohydrates. Keep in mind however that there are a few processed natural complex carbohydrates that are very good carbohydrates. You can add these to your “natural” list.
  2. If weight loss is your goal, have a strong preference for natural complex carbohydrates over natural simple carbohydrates. No more than one third of your carbohydrate intake should come from simple carbohydrates on a weight loss diet, preferably even less.
  3. Some of the healthier refined complex carbohydrates are OK in small amounts, but it’s always better to replace them with natural alternatives when you can.
  4. Avoid refined simple carbohydrates as much as you can. Better still, cut them out altogether.
  5. Having made healthy choices of good carbohydrates following Steps 1 to 4, you can then optimize your choices further still by focusing on those with a low GI value.

And that’s it!

5 simple steps to choosing the very best in good carbohydrates, and avoiding bad carbohydrates. Very important stuff – getting your carbohydrates right is a major key to long-term success in weight loss and long-term health.

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Fabian Colussi is a women's Bikini and Figure competition coach for natural athletes, certified personal trainer and gym instructor, and women's fitness consultant. He also has a background in martial arts, is an NLP Master Practitioner, and has a certification in Hypnotherapy. Fabian is a co-owner and co-founder of Million Dollar Baby Fitness.

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One Comment

  1. Zeke
    10 May, 2016

    Thanks for the great article, it cleared up so many things up for me!


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