The Best Kind of Carbs for Losing Fat and Gaining Energy

If you’re like most people, you’ve put on a few pounds over the holidays. No big deal, that’s very common. But the New Year is upon us, and it’s time to buckle up and trim down. Before you know it you’ll be shedding inches in all the right places, so let’s get lean.

Step 1 is making the best choices on the largest part of your diet – carbs. Here are four aspects of carbs to consider when making smart choices.

Complex, Not Simple

Simple carbs, also called simple sugars, are very short chains of the basic carbohydrate, glucose – or the variations thereof. Complex carbs contain the same glucose, but in longer chains.

Without getting into too much biochemistry, here’s what you need to know. You body breaks down sugars from each end of a glucose chain. So, when you eat a lot of simple sugars, you have many short chains broken down at the same time, meaning you get a burst of sugar available that can quickly get absorbed into your bloodstream. That will soon cause a spike in insulin (to prevent blood sugar levels becoming too high), followed by a period of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) which leads to more hunger – often accompanied with a headache.

There is another significant reason why rapid increases in blood sugar, and the corresponding insulin is something to be avoided: such increases in blood sugar effectively put the brakes on fat metabolism!Our body’s physiology is set up to maximize survival, so it will not burn fat well, if plenty of glucose is available in the bloodstream. Even on lower calorie diets, if simple sugars spike insulin, fat metabolism will be impaired.

But, when you eat the same amount of carbs in longer chains – in complex form – you have fewer chains broken down at once. This means it takes longer to break down that carbohydrate, giving you more “time released” supply of glucose and energy over a longer time. Compare blood sugar response to oatmeal (complex carbs) versus Fruit Loops (short acting simple carbs/sugars), with the same calories, and you’ll see (and feel) the difference.

Low Glycemic Index

The ultimate factor the issue of complex versus simple speaks to is the carb’s effect on blood sugar. But, truth be told, it’s not just the structure of the carb that determines how much your blood sugar rises after ingesting a carb, known as a food’s glycemic index.

The chemical nature of the carb (fructose, glucose, lactose, etc.) and the other ingredients in the food, such as fiber and fat content, also play a role in hastening or slowing the movement of sugar from your digestive system into your bloodstream. That’s why knowing a food’s glycemic index is so important to your food selection. See below for a list showing the glycemic index of your favorite foods.


Fiber is a carb. I know, it doesn’t seem like it should be, but it is. Fiber provides calories and makes you feel full, and it also slows the rate of carbohydrate chain breakdown.

Have you ever looked at the side of a cereal box? The carbs are broken down by type: (a) complex carbs, (b) simple and other sugars, and (c) fiber. So, all carbs are not created equal. While they all have 4 calories per gram, they can have very different rate of being broken down and liberating glucose. Look for those carbs with high complex carbs and fiber.

Hydrating Carbs

This is something many people don’t take into consideration. Fact is, there are many people walking around who are functionally dehydrated, not putting back as much fluid as they are losing throughout the day; we call this voluntary dehydration. This is important, not just for body temperature control, but also because your body stores carbs with three times the carb’s weight in water. Water become s a key component in carb metabolism.

If you may be one of those people who is at the low end of the hydration scale, it is best to choose carbs that contain water versus those that are relatively dried out. Pasta, rice and fruit are excellent examples.

What, Then, Should I Eat?

Given the above, here are the best carbs for weight loss and energy – those that maintain stable blood glucose for optimal training and minimize fat deposition by way of insulin.

1. Barley. One cup uncooked, which makes a ton of barley with a dish or in a soup, has 354 calories, 74 grams of carbs and a whopping 17 grams of fiber.

2. Brown rice. This whole grain is chewy, filling and is a great source of energy, One cup, cooked, has 216 calories, 44 grams of carbs, and 4 grams of fiber.

3. Whole wheat pasta. Whole-grain pasta is also lower in calories and higher in fiber and certain micronutrients than refined pasta. One cup of whole wheat spaghetti (about 5 oz) has 174 calories, 38 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fiber.

4. Sweet potatoes. Don’t let the “sweet” fool you; sweet potatoes actually have a lower glycemic index than white potatoes. A medium sweet potato has 180 calories, 41 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fiber.

5. Quinoa. If you’re not a brown rice fan, you might like quinoa. Quinoa has a crunchy texture and nutty flavor. It’s also gluten-free and can thus be enjoyed by people who are sensitive to gluten or wheat. One cup of cooked quinoa contains 222 calories, 39 grams of carbs and 4 grams of fiber.

6. Bananas. Here’s your best overall fruit. An excellent source of potassium, bananas may be the world’s first superfood. One medium banana provides about 110 calories, 28 grams of carbs (even the sugar is naturally occurring), 3 grams of fiber and 450 mg of potassium.

Glycemic Index Chart

High Carbohydrate Foods + Glycemic Index (glucose = 100)
White Wheat Bread: 75 ± 2
Whole Wheat/Whole Meal Bread: 74 ± 2
Specialty Grain Bread: 53 ± 2
Unleavened Wheat Bread: 70 ± 5
Wheat Roti: 62 ± 3
Chapatti: 52 ± 4
Corn Tortilla: 46 ± 4
White Rice, Boiled: 73 ± 4
Brown Rice, Boiled: 68 ± 4
Barley: 28 ± 2
Sweet Corn: 52 ± 5
Spaghetti, White: 49 ± 2
Spaghetti, Whole Meal: 48 ± 5
Rice Noodles: 53 ± 7
Udon Noodes: 55 ± 7
Couscous: 65 ± 4

Breakfast Cereals + Glycemic Index (glucose = 100)
Cornflakes: 81 ± 6
Wheat Flake Biscuits: 69 ± 2
Porridge, Rolled Oats: 55 ± 2
Instant Oat Porridge: 79 ± 3
Rice Porridge/Congee: 78 ± 9
Millet Porridge: 67 ± 5
Muesli: 57 ± 2

Fruit and Fruit Products + Glycemic Index (glucose = 100)
Apple, Raw: 36 ± 2
Orange, Raw: 43 ± 3
Banana, Raw: 51 ± 3
Pineapple, Raw: 59 ± 8
Mango, Raw: 51 ± 5
Watermelon, Raw: 76 ± 4
Dates, Raw: 42 ± 4
Peached, Canned: 43 ± 5
Strawberry Jam/Jelly: 49 ± 3
Apple Juice: 41 ± 2
Orange Juice: 50 ± 2

Vegetables + Glycemic Index (glucose = 100)
Potato, Boiled: 78 ± 4
Potato, Instant Mash: 87 ± 3
Potato, French Fries: 63 ± 5
Carrots, Boiled: 39 ± 4
Sweet Potato, Boiled: 63 ± 6
Pumpkin, Boiled: 64 ± 7
Plantain/Green Banana: 55 ± 6
Taro, Boiled: 53 ± 3
Vegetable Soup: 48 ± 5

Dairy Products and Alternatives + Glycemic Index (glucose = 100)
Milk, Full Fat: 39 ± 3
Milk, Skim: 37 ± 4
Ice Cream: 51 ± 3
Yogurt, Fruit: 41 ± 2
Soy Milk: 34 ± 4
Rice Milk: 86 ± 7

Legumes + Glycemic Index (glucose = 100)
Chickpeas: 28 ± 9
Kidney Beans: 24 ± 4
Lentils: 32 ± 5
Soy Beans: 16 ± 1

Snack Products + Glycemic Index (glucose = 100)
Chocolate: 40 ± 3
Popcorn: 65 ± 5
Potato Crisps: 56 ± 3
Soft Drink/Soda: 59 ± 3
Rice Crackers/Crisps: 87 ± 2

Sugars + Glycemic Index (glucose = 100)
Fructose: 15 ± 4
Sucrose: 65 ± 4
Glucose: 103 ± 3
Honey: 61 ± 3

Data are means ± SEM.

* Low-GI varieties were also identified.

† Average of all available data.

Source: American Diabetes Association

About the Author: Bob LeFavi

Bob LeFavi, PhD, is a professor of sports medicine and Dean of the Beaufort Campus at the University of South Carolina, Beaufort. He has been department head of health sciences and sports medicine at Armstrong State University and Georgia Southern University, Savannah, GA. Bob won the bantamweight class at the IFBB NorthAmerican Bodybuilding Championship and was runner-up at both the USA and National Championships. He also competed in the CrossFit Games as a Master’s athlete and has written over 750 articles in the popular press on training, diet, and fitness.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.