The Complete Guide to Carbohydrates

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Guide to Carbohydrates- are they healthy
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The most common objection I get when recommending a no-grain diet is: “What about the healthy whole grains? Don’t I need the fiber?” I covered this in depth in my grains post, but it seemed that a more thorough explanation of the role of carbohydrates in the body would be a good idea.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates exist in varying levels in a lot of foods including grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, etc. Typically, foods containing grains have a higher carbohydrate content than, say, an equal amount of spinach. In general, the more processed the food, the higher the carbohydrate content. Any food that you eat: protein, fat, or carbohydrate, is broken down by the body. What you don’t immediately use is stored for later use.

Any form of carbohydrate is eventually broken down by the body into glucose, a simple form of sugar. While the body can use glucose for fuel, levels that exceed what  is needed are toxic to the body. In the long run, that whole wheat muffin, cup of millet, or bowl of oatmeal turns into the exact same thing as a cup of soda, a donut, or a handful of candy. The fructose in fruit and the carbohydrates in vegetables are recognized the same way.

The Problem of Carbs…

The problem is, glucose is actually toxic if it is just floating around in your bloodstream, so the body has a defense mechanism. Any glucose that is not immediately used is stored as glycogen in the liver and the muscles. This would be all well and good except that your body has a limited number of glycogen receptors. When these are full, as they almost always are in inactive people, the body only has one option left: to store all the excess glucose as saturated fat within the body.

To make matters worse for the inactive, carb addict, when the body senses glucose in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) to signal the body to store the glucose as glycogen. If the glycogen receptors are full and it can’t do this, the body thinks that the cells didn’t get the message and releases even more insulin.

When this happens for a period of time, the cells start to become resistant to the presence of insulin, causing a vicious cycle. The body then releases even more insulin, trying desperately to get the cells to uptake the toxic glucose. The presence of excess insulin in the bloodstream is also toxic and further damages the receptors on these cells. Eventually, the insulin allows the glucose access to your fat cells to get it out of the bloodstream. In other words- Fat isn’t stored as fat in the body- Sugar (from carbohydrates) is stored as fat!

Now that we understand that, it is easy to see why the Insulin/Diabetes/Fat equation can be so confusing. It is the glucose from Carbohydrates that causes the rise in insulin, the insulin resistance and the excess fat, but since this commonly manifests itself as excess weight (fat) in the body, researchers once assumed that fat caused diabetes.

Interestingly, high fat diets are also blamed for heart disease, but fat got this reputation falsely as well. Excess glucose in the bloodstream is toxic, and a gross, sticky sludge. Combine this with the sticky glucose molecules that leech through the small intestines of people who consume grains, and you have a chemical structure similar to wall-paper glue. Which do you think has a higher possibility of clogging arteries: slippery lipids or sticky wall paper glue?

Excess glucose can also cause a rise in triglycerides (it has to be stored somewhere!) and cause joint inflammation. The body keeps storing excess glucose as fat, and the extra insulin that is excreted blocks the action of fat burning enzymes, reducing the body’s ability to burn stored fat. Soon, even the fat cells become resistant, so all the glucose and resulting insulin are free to circulate the bloodstream wreaking havoc and increasing cancer risk.

As if that weren’t enough, the resistance of your cells eventually keeps them from absorbing amino acids (proteins) either, making it difficult or impossible to build or maintain muscle. Since the cells are resistant and the body can’t access them for stored energy, it has no choice but to start cannibalizing muscle tissue and converting it into sugar for energy. Since the excess insulin is blocking  fat burning enzymes from functioning, the body can’t burn fat and is forced to burn muscle. (This, by the way, is the real cause of muscle wasting, not skipping meals, as some would suggest)

The ending to this sad story? Eventually, the liver is damaged by excess insulin and stops converting thyroid hormone T4 to T3, causing low thyroid function and excess weight gain. Nerve damage and loss of eyesight can follow. Finally, an exhausted pancreas throws in the towel and refuses to make insulin anymore. This lovely condition is called Diabetes, and comes with the added bonus of getting to inject high levels of insulin… until you die! Sound exciting? I didn’t think so!

What to do about it…

The good news is that the body has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate itself and that the reverse of the above horror story is also true. When we eliminate grains and other nutrient inferior sources of carbohydrates and get the carbs we do need from vegetables and fruits, our bodies start to become more sensitive to insulin again. Exercise helps too, as muscles that are being used need to access the stored energy (glycogen) inside them. This is the reason that type 2 diabetics often see improvement of symptoms when they adopt a consistent exercise routine.

Removal of bad carbohydrates and commitment to a regular exercise routine allow the body to become sensitive to insulin again. At this point, the body can burn body fat during the day because it is not busy trying to neutralize the toxic glucose in the bloodstream. Since the cells are not damaged, they can absorb amino acids from proteins again. At this point, the body is able to burn fat and build or maintain muscle with fairly little effort.

Unfortunately, this muscle building and fat burning won’t happen with the average American diet! It is estimated that the average American consumes between 350-500+ grams of carbohydrates a day from mostly processed grain and sugar sources. The body does need carbohydrates in some amount, so if grains and sugars aren’t the answer, where should we get them?

Vegetables (and some fruits) are the most nutrient dense sources of healthy carbohydrates. They also contain much higher nutrient levels than grains/sugars and have a cleansing effect on the body. The average person should consume around 100-140 grams of carbohydrates a day from mainly vegetable (and some fruit) sources for optimal health (and less if he/she is trying to lose weight). Consuming adequate levels of vegetables is also the answer to the “what about the fiber” question. Vegetables contain high levels of healthy fiber and are very helpful to the digestive system. Don’t believe me? Eat a bagel and drink a veggie smoothie and let me know which one cleans you out more!

While it is easy to buy into the argument that obesity and diabetes just come back to our genes, it just isn’t true. (I personally think the whole nature/nurture debate on genetic predisposition to health problems is less separated than we think. Families and those in the same culture tend to eat the same foods-causing the same problems!) We have much more ability to affect our gene expression than the mainstream media and the medical community would have us believe. For Moms, this means that the raising rates of childhood diabetes comes back to us…. kids don’t buy their own food!

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Lauren Jefferis, board certified in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor or work with a doctor at SteadyMD.

Agree? Totally disagree? Share below in the comments!

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


59 responses to “The Complete Guide to Carbohydrates”

  1. Jamie Avatar

    Carbs are our friends. Quality of our carbohydrates matter – a candy bar ? whole wheat bread, broccoli or blueberries. There’s also a difference between Slow vs Fast Carbs.

  2. Daniel Avatar

    This is a great read Katie!

    My father is a diabetic and his lifestyle had to completely change in order to live a decent life. Furthermore, carbs have always been his enemy. Cutting out the carbs has definitely improved his health…

  3. John Avatar

    I like this site, but this is seriously a misleading article out to demonize carbohydrate. The reader is left with idea that all carbohydrates are bad, and consumption will lead to what’s detailed in this article.

    In reality, this article is referring to the possible results from carbohydrate in excess, over a long duration of time. It also acts as if glucose somehow and issue, which is most fundamental to life.

    Excess carbs or fats will lead to issues. Excess fat will just immediately get stored as fat, and will also lead to weight gain and issues as well.

    1. Judith Avatar

      I think you get something wrong. Katie does not write that all carbohydrates are bad.

      Actually she writes: ” Vegetables (and some fruits) are the most nutrient dense sources of healthy carbohydrates. They also contain much higher nutrient levels than grains/sugars and have a cleansing effect on the body. The average person should consume around 100-140 grams of carbohydrates a day from mainly vegetable (and some fruit) sources for optimal health (and less if he/she is trying to lose weight).”

      This article matches the Research I did for myself and is very well written.
      Kind regards

      She does not say that all carbohydrates are bad

  4. Nina Avatar

    thank you for this article!!!
    I had to go on a No-Grain diet! It’s very hard but I bake my own Seed-bread and avoid bread, pasta, potatoes.
    I can eat Quinoa-flour and Buckwheat-flour in my Seed-bread but that’s it.

  5. Megan P. Avatar
    Megan P.

    Hi Katie,

    I had been doing the ARD, and just wondered how this fit into your recommendation of not adding grains? I know that I had read posts before about how you liked the idea of carb cycling that Dr. Christensen recommended. It can be so confusing sometimes:) I had gestational diabetes with all of my children (3) so wondering if maybe I should go back to no grains. Do you still do any of the principles with the Adrenal Reset Diet?

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      I still always do the light in the morning and wear orange glasses at night. I also focus on protein in the morning and work out and eat carbs only in the afternoons and evening…

      1. Sam Avatar

        what do you mean: “…do the light in the morning…”? what type of protein do you consume?

        1. Wellness Mama Avatar

          As Dr. Christianson recommends in the ARD, I make sure to get at least 30 minutes of light each morning. I typically consume leftover meats and veggies for breakfast.

  6. Vanessa Avatar

    Hi Wellness Mama!
    Question- I’m trying to adopt a more vegan approach to consuming protein so that I don’t have to consume animal protein with each meal. I’m so torn on grains.
    I’m very active and maintain a well balanced diet that is for the most part, very low in sugar.
    Can you please share your input on grains such as buckwheat and farro? I would like to keep them in my diet as vegan options for protein along with beans and the like if they are truly healthy options. Thanks!

  7. Michele Avatar

    This is one of the best and easily understood articles I have seen on carbs. My nutritionist and I are constantly arguing about carbs. She insists on one fruit a day and only liow protein., but expects me to reach between 140 and 180 g of carbs per day. I have increased fruits, vegetables and protein, cut way back on grains, and sugar levels are greatly improved, with weight slowly coming off. I decided I needed to get away from the old traditions of allowed foods. In addition, essential oils have been a big help. I enjoy your website and read it every day. Thank you for your very informative posts.

  8. Dan Avatar

    All vegan style diets are malnourished, and if GMO’d pathogenic, from starches carbohydrates to fruits these are all broken down into sugars at different rates, where is the non oxidized cholesterol the essential amino’s ?

  9. Sarah Avatar

    I love you’re blog and agree that this style of diet works for treating type 2 diabetes it makes me angry that you are blaming all of us type 2 diabetics for a disease that Most of uswas not able to control getting. I followed a low carb diet, an very active, and work in a very active career but here at 35 I still got type 2 diabetes. My mom died at 46 from it, and both of my grand fathers died early from it. So to tell people that genetics doesn’t play that big of a role in whether you get diabetes just isn’t true. I didn’t choose this for my self and I didn’t give my self diabetes. If anyone should feel ashamed it’s the medical community who insist on type 2’s following the ADA’ idea of a diet which only perpetuates the cycle of being insulin resistant then giving more med’s or insulin, then gaining more weight, and needing more meds and so on and so forth . I tire of people assuming that it is a disease that people get because they are lazy or lack control. I know many people who are lazy and lack self control but guess what they don’t have diabetes. Maybe the conversation should be how to better control insulin resistance and less about were the blame lies so all the other type 2 diabetics who read yours and countless other blogs can come of the type 2 closet and not feel ashamed or ridiculed because they have a disease.

    1. Wellness Mama Avatar

      I am sorry for the loss of your family members to diabetes. Honestly, I am not trying to be insensitive, but this article is about carbs and how they affect the body, not diabetes. I mention Type 2 diabetes literally once (to mention a clinical fact), and I would never blame people who have this disease for contracting it!

  10. Lorie Avatar

    I think my husband and I would do very well to largely cut grains from our diet. I currently make a lot of our food at home (granolas, bread, crackers, muffins) to avoid vegetable oils.. My husband – though in good shape – eats A LOT of grains. He is convinced that is what his body needs for energy (along with fat). How can I make the transition… I’m guessing I just need to load the house with grain free snacks and cook grain-free meals, but I am afraid that won’t seem like enough food to him.. Any tips on how to ease family into these new diets… What sorts of snacks/meals should I make? Thanks for your info!

  11. Beeton Avatar

    There are some inaccuracies in this post…

    It’s kind of odd to say something like “the excess sugar gets stored as fat” and then act like that is always a negative thing. Basic biochemistry tells us that it is completely normal for the body to store fat directly after a meal and then release it for energy while we are not eating. That is how normal human and animal metabolism works. We typically do not burn off a meal directly as it enters the bloodstream unless one is doing intense exercise to where the calories in matches the calories out.
    Also, you talk about insulin as if it is this horrific hormone. Without insulin you would die. There is this huge war on carbs and insulin ever since T2 diabetes became such an epidemic. It is completely incorrect to say that insulin is toxic. It is also incorrect to say that blood glucose is toxic. Too much insulin or too much glucose in the blood is toxic, just like too much of anything else in the blood is toxic. Your body also releases insulin when you eat protein. It is a necessary hormone and is how your cells receive nutrients.
    This article seems to assume that everyone is also sedentary. And by using inactivity as a scapegoat for why carbs are bad and telling people to just lower carbs, it infers that it is okay to stay sedentary if your carbs are low. It is true that carb intake should be entirely dependent on activity level, however if you tell people to lower carbs and then subsequently promote more physical activity, then that is a recipe for disaster. Exercising without enough carbs to fuel the activity leads to decreased performance and can even seriously lower sex and thyroid hormone levels.
    Even if you promote “grain free” living (which is really kind of weird considering there is plenty of evidence that we are fully adapted to eat grains) then people need to be eating more things like quinoa, potatoes, fruit, etc.
    I’d love to see someone get T2 diabetes eating whole and unprocessed foods that even includes grains and some sugars if they are decently active. This whole low carb phenomenon is based on the polar opposite of the dietary guidelines (which no one even actually follows) and uses that as a reason for going low carb and high protein/high fat. I’ve seen plenty of active people completely burn out on such a diet and even slightly sedentary people end up with all sorts of hormonal issues from such. There is also plenty of research literature documenting the same things.
    Please look at the populations with the best figures and the populations that live the longest and you’ll see that their diets are actually highly starch based. They also have the lowest incidence of disease and premature death. Stressing out over eating low carb and a “perfect” diet will likely cause more harm than anything.
    I didn’t mean to derail your article completely, but it kind of perpetuates the bad science and misinformation surrounding carbs and insulin.

    1. Sean Avatar

      I have a bmr of 3200 calaories a day, i ate a largely clean high carh low fat diet as perscribed by my docotor. I went up to 274lbs and developed type 2 diabetes inside of a year. I switched to the lchf diet. Ive dropped my wieght to 225lbs and steadily losing 3 t 4 lbs a week. My nutritionist hack doctor misdiagnosed my lack of t2 and t4 thyriod and put me on a diet to develope type 2. Not only is the medical profession completely insane about carbs and health, your completely wrong.

      Low carb high fat is the way nature intended us to eat. Show me where human coumd get grains in the wild prior to the agrarian revolution.

    2. Olivia Avatar

      THANK YOU! I’m so sick of this low-carb pseudo nonsense… And websites like this one abuse the trust of their readers in promoting a diet founded in *no science* that can actually be detrimental to their health.

  12. Rayca Avatar

    Well, IDK. You lost me at slippery lipids v sticky glue. Slippery lipids (oil) can congeal too. They can tell just what type of FAT was eaten when they do an autopsy of those squishy (fat hardened) body parts. When I let my “silky” chicken fat come to room temp., it turns to sludge so I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. Mind you, I’m not against eating fat, just inflating the facts.

  13. Maria Avatar

    I have been spending the last week reading all of your blog posts ALLLLL DAY ERRR DAY I absolutely love you, thank you for existing!

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