Carbohydrates are essential for healthy function of the body. As with fats, it is the type of carbohydrate that matters most. The best types of carbohydrates to choose are in whole, or unprocessed, foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Carbohydrates fuel the body and provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients (nutrients that come from plants). Phytonutrients, which are important to fight disease, include flavenoids (found in soy, green tea, and citrus fruits), carotenoids (found in carrots and cantaloupe), and lycopenes (found in tomatoes and pink grapefruit).

All carbohydrates are converted to sugar during digestion, and are either used immediately or stored for later use. Some carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels rapidly. The glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load values can be used to compare one carbohydrate to another and distinguish between healthy and less healthy carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates that raise blood sugar quickly have a high GI. These types of carbohydrates usually are made from refined (white) flours or have large amounts of refined sugar or sweeteners added.

Examples of foods with a high glycemic index include white bread, white rice, cookies, candy, soda, and white potatoes. Eating large amounts of high GI foods is linked to an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes.

Carbohydrates that come from whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables are converted to sugar much more slowly, causing a less drastic change in blood sugar levels. These types of carbohydrates, which have a low GI, help provide necessary nutrients. Eating more low GI foods can increase feelings of fullness, can help reduce the risk for heart disease, and can help control type-2 diabetes.

The easiest way to increase the dietary intake of healthier, low GI foods is to substitute whole grains for foods made with processed flour whenever possible. Some examples include the following:

  • Choose brown rice instead of white rice
  • Choose 100% whole grain breads instead of white bread
  • Choose whole-grain cereals instead of cereals made with refined flour

Different Types of Carbs

According to our sister publication REMEDY's Healthy Living Spring 2015, carbohydrates differ in the effect they have on your blood glucose level, with some boosting it quickly and others raising it more slowly. The glycemic index (GI) compares the potential of foods that contain the same amount of carbohydrate to raise blood sugar. Refined carbohydrates, such as products made with white flour, boost glucose levels quickly and are ranked high on the index. Glycemic load (GL) represents the blood sugar response to a typical serving of a food.

Findings from studies looking at the association between high GI or GL foods and type 2 diabetes risk have been inconsistent, and more research needs to be done to confirm the benefits of low GI/GL foods. In the meantime, there is certainly no harm in cutting down on white bread and other high GI/GL foods and replacing them with lower GI/GL alternatives.

Updated by Remedy Health Media

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 14 Feb 2007

Last Modified: 28 Sep 2015