CARBS: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

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CARBS: The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

my breakfast: home-made dollar pancakes

| By John Barban |

Carbohydrates or “carbs” are the major dietary fuel source for our body. The latest low carb craze of the 90’s and 2000’s was actually just part of a historical cyclical pattern of demonizing carbs, fats and protein. Yes, even protein has taken its turn as the evil macronutrient we’re not supposed to eat (but that’s’ for another day). Today we’re talking about carbs.

These days, even the most passive recreational fitness reader has heard the general talk about carbs, and it goes something like this:

  • Starchy long chain carb sources are ‘better’ than short chain carbs, or sugars.
  • Whole grains are supposed to be better than refined grains.
  • Low glycemic index carbs are better for you because they stimulate less insulin release … blah, blah, blah.
  • Carb sources that are higher in fiber are better for cardiovascular health and blood sugar control.
  • Vegetable and whole food sources of carbs are supposed to be better than refined sources.

So the question is: Does any of this matter or what?


Carbs: The Good

Sweet Potatoes

Current wisdom suggests you're doing better for yourself if your carbs are less processed and refined.

Current wisdom would suggest that you’re doing better for yourself if your carbs come in a form that look less processed and resemble what the food source looked like in nature. For example:

  • corn on the cob vs corn syrup
  • whole fruits vs fruit juice
  • whole vegetables (steamed, grilled, raw) vs vegetable juice (i.e. V8)
  • whole grains vs highly refined grains

This is actually a pretty easy way to categorize your carb choices in your head. If the food looks similar to how it did when it was growing then it’s probably a decent choice. In most cases this simple rule will take care of things like glycemic index, appetite control, fiber and all of those good things that we hope to get from the ‘proper’ carb sources.

This might sound overly simplistic, but nutrition information is way too complicated as it is. Often the most simple solutions are more effective than the complex.


Carbs: The Bad


High sugar foods can become addictive and many of us can’t stop eating them once we start.

Highly refined carbs and sugars are what many experts in the field of nutrition would consider bad. There are a few reasons why this might be.

First, they are easily overeaten so you can over do it on sugar without noticing it. That first piece of bread, or French fry, or slice of cake can easily turn into a lot more than you bargained for.

Second, high sugar drinks can add a ton of calories to your daily intake without actually satisfying your hunger at all. It’s much better to eat your calories than drink them. If you’re going to drink any sort of sweetened drink it’s better to use an artificial sweetener and save yourself the calories for your food.

Third, It used to be believed that the glycemic index of a food really mattered for its effect on insulin. But we soon found out that even pure sugar wasn’t that big of a deal if you only had a teaspoon of it. The real devil is in the actual dose of sugar. This is when we realized glycemic load was the real culprit. To calculate glycemic load, we multiply the glycemic index of a food by the amount of carbohydrates (in grams) and divide the total by 100. But as we’ll see, high glycemic index foods are also the type of foods we can become addicted to.

Fourth, high sugar foods can become addictive and some people can’t stop eating them once they start. Some research even suggests that having some high sugar foods will cause you to overeat all other kinds of foods including fat and protein. So even though sugar itself in small doses is fine, the danger is that you may not be able to control your dose once you start eating it. This is something you’ll have to determine for yourself. If you can handle a bit of sugar or highly refined carbs like bread or pasta without over doing it then by all means go ahead and have some. BUT, if you know you can’t resist over consuming these foods once you start, then perhaps it’s a better bet to stay away and reserve them for special occasions only.


Carbs: The Ugly

Diet Books

Sometimes too much information can lead you to analysis paralysis, and that’s when it gets real ugly.

Nutrition information, or better stated as nutrition misinformation, has caused so much unnecessary confusion about carbs. Trying to become ‘educated’ in nutrition and specifically about carbs will drive you nuts, especially if you use the internet or even some journal articles to get a final answer on what the perfect carbs are. I believe there is no final answer, and what works for someone else might not necessarily work for you.

Information is all over the place and constantly contradicts itself. First it was low fat, high carb, and then it was zero carbs. Next it was all about low glycemic index, followed by low glycemic load. Another expert talks about the need to balance your carbs with your fat and protein, and on and on and on. You could literally read for hundreds of hours about carbs and still not know what to do. Sometimes too much information can lead you to analysis paralysis and get you totally stressed out, and that’s when it gets real ugly.

The truth is there are no perfect carbs and all carbs including sugar and highly refined carbs can be part of healthy diet that also keeps you 6-packed ripped and performing at an optimal level…as long as you’re mindful of how much of them you’re eating. Remember, the devil is always in the dose.

I suggest you keep it simple and try to eat more foods that look as they did in nature before they ended up on your plate.  I like to follow a 70/30 rule. 70% of my carbs are as they were in nature (fruits, veggies, leafy greens etc) …the other 30% can be whatever else, sugar, bread, pasta, muffins etc.

This is a simple way to know that I’m getting most of my carbs from whole food sources and still getting my sweet fix without overdoing it.  Your job is to find a ratio that works for you to both satisfy your bodies needs for whole foods and your mental need for an indulgent fix every now and then.


John Barban
John Barban is a former Strength & Conditioning coach and author of the Adonis Index workout for men, the Venus Index Workout for women, and the Anything Goes Diet weight loss program. John is also the host of two weekly health and fitness podcasts at and Both programs also offer a private access community where members can interact with each other and advance their understanding of working out, muscle building, fat loss and nutrition.
John has a Master’s of science degree in Human Biology and Nutrition from the University of Guelph (Guelph, Ontario) and has completed further graduate work at the University of Florida in the department of Health and Human Performance. John has also spent 10 years developing and consulting in the sports supplement industry bringing dozens of muscle building a fat loss supplements to market. He continues to do research in muscle building and fat loss, as well as the psychology of getting in shape to give his clients the best information to help them reach their goals as efficiently and quickly as possible.

By |July 3rd, 2011|Features|

About the Author:
Strong Athlete was founded in 2011 by Strength & Conditioning Experts PK Mills and Gaétan Boutin. With over 40+ years of combined experience in sports nutrition, athletics, and fitness, the Strong Athlete team is dedicated to helping athletes achieve their maximum potential through a holistic approach to training, nutrition, and mindset.

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