The benefits carbohydrates can have on heart health

Bread with a nutrition label

There are many diets and stereotypes that stamp carbohydrates as the enemy. In reality, all carbohydrates are not created equally. The ways in which complex and simple carbs are digested affect our health in varying ways.

To get a better handle on how carbs influence our cardiovascular and overall health we spoke to Tamar Polonsky, MD, assistant professor of medicine, who specializes in general cardiology at the University of Chicago Medicine.

According to Polonsky, complex carbs include foods such as whole grains, vegetables and beans, and they help us stay full so we can eat less.

“They also decrease inflammation and help us decrease the risk of plaque buildup in our arteries,” said Polonsky.

Simple carbs, on the other hand, are digested quickly so that we become hungry again faster, inherently causing weight gain. Simple carbs include foods such as candy, juice and baked goods.

Plaque buildup is made of various substances found in the blood such as fat, cholesterol and calcium. The presence of these substances increases the likelihood of a heart attack, stroke or even death, which is why it is important to stick with the healthiest carbs possible.

According to Polonsky, the biggest offender when overindulging in simple carbs is juice. And in case you’re wondering: it does not make a difference if it is organic.

“Sugary drinks are an underappreciated source of carbohydrates,” said Polonsky. “I’ve had many patients who have eliminated juices and sodas, and those changes alone made significant changes in their cholesterol and weight.”

Simple alternatives to juice include lemon water and making your own unsweetened iced tea. The key is to control how much sugar you consume in a single serving. A typical juice has about 23 grams of sugar in it. The World Health Organization recommends adults with a normal body mass index (BMI) not have more than 25 grams a day, making it very easy to go overboard.

“People want to have sweet drinks,” said Polonsky. “But we have to train our brain and palate to not expect a sweet drink. Water is actually all we need.”

Overall, a healthy diet will benefit cardiovascular health. Often, people tend to compartmentalize their health and forget that a healthy body in general will lead to healthy organs.

“We know that people who have diets that are high in vegetable sources of protein and low in simple carbohydrates are less likely to develop obesity, less likely to develop hypertension and those people are also at a lower risk of developing cancer,” she said.


Tamar Polonsky, MD

Tammy Polonsky, MD

Tamar Polonsky, MD, MSCI, is a general cardiologist. She treats a wide range of cardiac conditions, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) and valve disease.

Learn more about Dr. Polonsky