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A sensible approach to carbs

Sort the good from the bad and the ugly with this advice from our dietitian
A man puts salad on a white plate with bread.

Low carb. High carb. Good carb. Bad carb. It sounds like the beginning of something by Dr. Seuss. If only dietary carbohydrates were as simple as a children’s book! The reality? “Carb” is one of those nutrition buzzwords that leads to a lot of confusion. 

Understanding the role of carbohydrates can help you eat a healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight — both important ways to reduce your risk of heart disease and stroke. Here’s what you need to know. 

Carbs 101

There are only three nutrients that contribute calories to the diet: fat, protein and carbohydrates. Yup, that’s it. Just three. Most foods contain a mix of these nutrients — for example, yogurt contains carbs, protein and fat.  

Carbs are the body’s main source of energy; carbs from food turn into fuel for the body. Some nutrition textbooks divide carbs into “simple” (sugars) and “complex” (starches and fibres). Simple carbs, like jam and honey, are broken down quickly by the body, causing a faster rise in blood sugar levels. Complex carbs, such as oatmeal, have more fibre, so are digested more slowly and don’t raise blood sugar levels as much. This keeps you full for longer and keeps blood sugar more stable. 


Carbs are found in:

  • vegetables 
  • fruit
  • beans and lentils
  • milk and yogurt
  • grains – bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, oats
  • sugary foods: candy, ice cream, pastries 
  • snack foods: chips, pretzels, crackers
  • sweet beverages: soda, juice
  • sweeteners: jam, honey, syrups.

Many of the foods on this list are super healthy. So it’s a mistake to disparage a whole nutrient group just because some foods that contain carbs (like candy) are not nutritious. Take note: carbs themselves are not the enemy! 

Good vs. bad carbs

Though dietitians are moving away from classifying foods as good or bad, these terms are widely used on diet-related websites, so we should define them. Your “good carbs” are generally the ones found in whole, unprocessed foods, which provide nutritional value from vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants. So, vegetables, fruit, beans, lentils and whole grains contain “good carbs.” Include these in your diet. 

The so-called “bad-carbs” are those in foods high in sugar, salt and/or fat. Examples are cookies, pretzels and soda. These foods are treats and should be limited.

What about white bread and pasta? They fall somewhere between good and bad carbs. They are not as nutritious as vegetables and whole grains, but not as nutrient-poor as cookies or candy. They contain some important nutrients, such as fibre, iron and folate. 

Are low carb diets OK?

It is perfectly healthy to follow a low-carb diet, as long as it includes a variety of nutritious, whole, unprocessed foods. Low-carb diets can be good for heart health, since they may increase good cholesterol levels, and decrease blood pressure and triglyceride levels. 

Studies show that some people successfully lose weight on a low carb diet, just as they can on a lower fat or Mediterranean-style diet. There’s no one right diet that will work for everyone. Ultimately, the best diet is one you can stick to in the long term. So if you love bread but hate meat, the low-carb diet may not be the right fit for you. 

And remember, low-carb does not mean no carb! A low carb diet still provides at least 20% of the day’s calories from carbohydrates. Well-planned low-carb diets do include vegetables, fruit, beans and even small portions of whole grains, such as oats and quinoa.

So if your friend says “I don’t eat carbs” or “I’m following a low-carb diet,” it usually means they’ve cut back on sugar and bread. Hopefully it doesn’t mean they have stopped eating nourishing foods like vegetables, fruit and beans. If they have, you’re now equipped to educate them as to why that’s not a nutritious idea.