Many of us have a love-hate relationship with carbohydrates. We love that bagel in the moment, but hate the dip in energy (or breakout!) that follows.
What exactly is a carb? Carbohydrates are all composed of sugar, which can be connected to various health conditions, but our bodies do need carbs (just as they need protein and fat) to get us through the day. However, not all carbs are created equal.
Keep scrolling to learn how to separate the good carbs from the bad ones.
Get Hair, Health & Science News
Complex vs. refined carbohydrates
When it comes to carbohydrates, it’s all about quality. The body uses all carbohydrates to produce glucose (also known as blood sugar) to help our organs do their thing and energize us throughout the day. When considering the quality of carbohydrates, the magic lies in how quickly your carb of choice is broken down into glucose. Glucose itself isn’t a bad thing, but getting too much glucose too quickly is when we get into trouble.
Refined carbohydrates like white flour go through a process which removes the “bulk,” such as fiber and other nutrients, from a food. The “simplification” of this food is what causes it to have a sudden effect on your body.
Unlike complex carbs that have fiber to act as a buffer, refined carbohydrates are broken down much faster. The result? All of that glucose hits your bloodstream like a sugar bomb, leading to a burst of energy and soaring blood sugar. In response to this spike, the hormone insulin springs to work, helping the body to store fat and signaling your cells to “store that glucose!” Before you know it, your blood sugar levels have tanked, leading to an energy slump, a crappy mood, and a craving for more sugar.
When rollercoaster blood sugar levels become a part of your daily life, this puts stress on your body, contributes to inflammation, and is correlated to health conditions like diabetes. This stress and inflammation can signal bad things to your hair follicles, getting in the way of the hair growth cycle.
In contrast, complex carbohydrates like whole grains generally pack a higher amount of fiber and a lower amount of sugar. These “nutrient buffers” ensure that the breakdown of glucose is more prolonged, allowing your body a more steady flow of energy and avoiding an unpleasant crash.
Carbohydrates, ranked from worst to best
4. THE WORST: Refined or processed carbohydrates
These are carbohydrates like white bread, white sugar, white flour pasta, and white rice that have been stripped of their blood-sugar-buffering fiber, as well as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, things both your body and hair are big fans of.
Alternatives: Whole-grain choices like brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and bread (especially breads with nuts and seeds), and pastas made with lentil, chickpea, or other beans. Flour is also available in a variety of more complex-carb forms, such as those made from whole-wheat, amaranth, chickpea, and almond.
3. Simple carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates have the simplest structure compared to other carbs, meaning they’re broken down quickly by the body. These kinds of carbs — which include white sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, concentrated juices, and sodas — have little to no fiber and little to no nutritional value, leading to blood sugar dysregulation. However, simple carbs can also be found in fruits and vegetables, which pack components like antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber to help slow the breakdown of sugar.
Alternatives: Instead of store-bought juice, try making your own using whole fruits. Swap sugary soda for plain seltzer, water, or drinks made with low-carb, more natural sweeteners like stevia and monkfruit.
2. Starches (complex carb)
Starch is a complex carbohydrate that gets turned into glucose for energy. High-starch foods like pizza, baked goods, and french fries should be avoided or limited, as they have been processed and thus contain less nutrients
Alternatives: Parsnips, quinoa, beans, whole-wheat grains, sweet potatoes, lentils and legumes (like peas). Craving pizza instead of vegetables? Try making your own with whole-wheat dough or even sweet potatoes!
1. THE BEST: Fiber (complex carb)
When it comes to carbs, it pays to be complicated. Put simply, complex carbohydrates have a more complicated chemical structure than other carb forms — and they take more time for the body to break down. Their high fiber content, found in whole grains, beans, nuts, and veggies like broccoli, is also key. During the digestive process, soluble fiber combines with water and turns into a gel-like goop, supporting healthy digestion and in turn assisting your gut flora; a win/win for both you and your hair!
When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to choose whole food options and to add some “complexity” to your carbs by ensuring you’re eating them with fiber, protein, or a healthy fat, as this will help buffer how quickly they’re broken down into sugar.
Written by Dr. Kali Olsen, ND