What’s the Difference Between Good Carbs & Unhealthy Carbs, Anyway?

Article posted in: Nutrition
good carbs

Carbs have gotten a bit of a bad rap in conjunction with low carb diets. But not all carbs are created equal—and not all carbs should be avoided! In fact, if you’re following the South Beach Diet, you may already know that part of the foundation of the diet is its focus on good carbs — like vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. These foods provide fiber and nutrients that are essential to your health.So don’t fear the carbs—read on to understand the difference between “good” and “bad”, and see our top picks for the good carbs you should be incorporating into your diet (and the list that you should avoid!)

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Carbohydrates are the starches, sugars and fibers found in many kinds of foods, from the “good”, whole carbs embraced by the South Beach Diet principles, to the not-so-good, refined carbs found in sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, pastries, white bread, white pasta and white rice, to name a few.

Although good and bad carbs are often referred to as complex and simple, respectively, categorizing them as whole and refined is more accurate.

That’s because simple carbs aren’t necessarily all “bad” carbs. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the perfect example—they’re simple carbs that vary drastically from other foods in the simple carb category. The fiber content found in fruits and veggies changes the way your body processes their sugars. It slows down their digestion, making them more like complex carbs with regards to how your body utilizes their fuel. So while these foods are simple carbs, they are not “bad” carbs—and they should be making a regular appearance in your daily meal plan.

So let’s get into the main differences between good and bad carbs:


Good carbs, AKA whole carbs—like vegetables, fruit, legumes and unprocessed whole grains, make a great addition to your wholesome diet.

Why they’re considered “good”:Health Food with High Fiber

     √ High in fiber and nutrients

     √ Low on the glycemic index

     √ Help you feel full with fewer calories

While fruits and most veggies are classified as simple carbs (and are packed with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and other essential nutrients), whole grains and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes fall under the complex carbohydrate category. Chemically, complex carbs are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules, which, along with their fiber content, take longer for your body to digest. This means that energy is released over a longer period of time and you get a nice consistent source of fuel throughout your day.

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Whole carb foods tend to have more vitamins, fiber and minerals when you’re choosing whole grains over processed ones. For example, whole grains like quinoa, brown rice and oats provide more nutrients than processed grains like white rice, white bread and baked goods made with white flour.

Whole carbs also generally rank lower on the glycemic index—a measure of how quickly a food causes your blood sugar level to rise after consuming it, on a scale from one to 100. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, foods that rank low on the glycemic index are digested and absorbed at a slower rate, and therefore cause a slower rise in blood sugar levels. Avoiding a blood sugar spike means avoiding a blood sugar crash—and the fatigue, headaches, irritability and cravings that come with it.


Bad carbs, AKA refined-carbohydrate foods, on the other hand, function quite differently in your body.

Why they’re considered “unhealthy”:

     X Low in fiber and nutrients

     X High on the glycemic index

     X Digest quickly, causing hunger and blood sugar spikes

“Bad” carb foods are those that have been heavily refined. Their naturally occurring fiber has been stripped out in the refining process, and they typically lack the essential nutrients found in whole, unrefined carbohydrate foods. Because of this, they’re sometimes referred to as “empty” calories.

They digest quickly in your body, so they don’t satisfy your hunger for as long a period of time as whole carbs do. They also tend to be higher on the glycemic index, which means their quicker digestion and absorption causes a rapid rise or “spike” in your blood sugar level, leading to the subsequent crash that can trigger hunger or cravings for more carb-heavy foods. Some of us may already be familiar with this “blood sugar rollercoaster” effect caused by refined carbs.

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good carbsSo to wrap up, here’s a general rule to follow: Choose carbohydrates in their natural, fiber-rich form over that have been heavily refined and stripped of their fiber.

To help make these guidelines (and your grocery shopping) easier, we’ve put together a quick reference guide to our favorite whole carbs, along with a list of the refined carbs you should definitely avoid. In the maintenance phase of the South Beach Diet, you can have these refined carbs in limited quantities if you choose, but for overall health and wellness, we recommend you stick with the “good” carbs.


  1. Vegetables (every color, type, shape and size!)
  2. Whole, fresh fruits
  3. Legumes
  4. Hummus
  5. Sweet potatoes
  6. Old-fashioned or steel-cut oats
  7. Quinoa
  8. Brown rice
  9. Millet
  10.  Barley


  1. White bread, wraps and crackers
  2. Pastries
  3. Cake and cookies
  4. Sugary cereals
  5. Potato chips and french fries
  6. White rice
  7. White pasta
  8. Ice cream
  9. Candy and chocolate
  10.  Soda and energy drinks