By Rikki Hoffman, RDN, CDN
Carbohydrates are not all created equal. They are found in many foods and beverages ranging from fruit and vegetables to candy, cookies, and sodas. Carbohydrates may have a bad rap, but they actually serve a fundamental role in our daily life.
What are carbohydrates? What are healthy carbs?
Carbohydrates, or “carbs”, are macronutrients found in certain foods and beverages. They provide energy for our bodies, aid in digestion, and promote gut health. Carbs can range in healthiness, and the more fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients a carb has, the healthier that carb is considered.
Are all carbs from food the same?
All carbs provide something our bodies need, but carbs from food are not all the same. There are three types of carbs: sugar, starch, and fiber.
Sugar is a simple carb that gives our bodies fast energy. Examples of some sugars are: glucose and sucrose (found in candies and desserts), and fructose (found in fruit). If used as an ingredient in a packed food, these sugars are what are considered “added sugar” on the label.
Starch is a complex carb found in grains, beans, and certain vegetables. When eaten, these carbs are digested and turned into simple sugar molecules, which our bodies can then use immediately for energy or store for later use. Starch can either be a complex carb or can be refined into a simple carb.
Fiber is another complex carb that is found in plant foods such as nuts, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Fiber is not digested and is instead used to help our bodies with the digestion process.
What’s the difference between grain carbs vs vegetable carbs vs fruit carbs vs bread carbs vs rice carbs?
Grain carbs could be either complex carbs or refined carbs. An unprocessed whole grain is a complex carb. Examples of complex carbs from unprocessed whole grains include carbs from brown rice, oats, and whole wheat. If whole grains are used to make bread or pasta, these will be considered complex carbs as well. Bread may also contain added sugar in addition to its complex or refined carbs, which adds to its total carb content.
Refined carbs are made by stripping the whole grain kernel of its bran and germ. In doing this, it also strips the carb of vital nutrients, such as fiber and certain vitamins and minerals (e.g. iron and B vitamins). Examples of refined carbs are white bread, white rice, white pasta, and pastries. These refined carbs can have vitamins and minerals added back in, but are often lacking in fiber.
Vegetable carbs include both starch and fiber carbs (complex carbs) as well as sugar carbs (simple carb), and fruit carbs include both sugar (simple carb) and fiber carbs (complex carb). Refined carbs are not found in fruit or vegetables.
What are the best carbs for you: bread carbs vs vegetable carbs vs rice carbs vs grain carbs vs fruit carbs?
The best carbs for you are complex carbs, and simple carbs from fruit.
You can find complex carbs – like fiber and starches – in whole grain foods, such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole oats, and whole barley. Vegetables are also a great source of fiber and starch.
Refined carbs and simple sugars – like white bread, white rice, pastries and sugar-sweetened beverages – have less nutritional value than complex carbs. Another thing to keep in mind is that carb foods like breads or pastries may have added sugar or unhealthy fats, which decrease their nutritional value and can lead to health problems when consumed in excess.
Simple sugars found in fruit are the exception. Despite containing simple sugars, fruits are considered some of the best foods for you because of their complete nutritional value.
Which carbs are the healthiest: rice carbs vs bread carbs vs grain carbs vs fruit carbs vs vegetable carbs?
The healthiest carbs are those that nourish your body, make you feel good, keep you full the longest, and provide essential nutrients. The healthiest carbs can come from fruit, vegetables, whole grain rice, whole grain bread, and other whole grain foods. These healthy carb foods provide fiber, essential nutrients (e.g. protein, iron, phosphorus and B-vitamins), and phytonutrients that fight diseases. They take longer to digest and also contribute to a feeling of fullness that will last longer than refined carbohydrates. Choosing whole grains, instead of white rice, white bread, and other refined grains, will promote health. For example, they may reduce your risk of heart disease and cancers and can ensure you meet daily nutrient requirements.
Are carbs from fruit the same as carbs from bread (bread carbs)?
Yes and no. Fruits contain simple sugar, while the main carbs from bread is starch. Simple sugar can also be added into some breads during processing. Both fruit and bread may contain fiber, depending on the bread. Bread made from whole grains will contain more fiber (maybe even more than a fruit!), while bread made from refined carbohydrates will contain little to no fiber. Fermented breads, such as sourdough, may also contain more available fiber than non-fermented white bread.
Are carbs from vegetables the same as carbs from bread (bread carbs)?
Yes, the carbs from vegetables are the same carbs as from bread. The carb found in both vegetables and in bread is starch. Vegetables and bread may also contain fiber, if the bread contains whole grains or other sources of fiber. Overall, whole grain bread and vegetables contain more nutrients than white or refined bread.
Looking for healthy bread? Try Wildgrain
Our bodies need carbohydrates in order to function, but some carbohydrates provide more nutritional value than others. Choosing whole grains, breads made from whole grains, fruit, and vegetables will add healthy carbs to your diet.
At Wildgrain, we use slow-fermentation to bake nutritious whole wheat breads including our Whole Wheat Flour Sourdough and fruit-and-nut-loaded Cranberry-Pecan Sourdough Loaf. We also never add sugar to our bread recipes, unlike many supermarket breads. Wildgrain is the first bake-from-frozen delivery subscription service for breads, pastries and fresh pastas. Learn more about Wildgrain and our artisanal baking methods.
About the Author
Rikki Hoffman, RDN, CDN has been a registered dietitian for ten years, working primarily with patients who have kidney disease. She also has a private practice which focuses on helping clients achieve lifestyle and weight loss goals. She graduated with a Bachelor's in Dietetics from Rutgers University and did her Dietetic Internship at Montclair State University.