These days it seems carbohydrates are the Rodney Dangerfield of the food world – they get no respect.
They don’t deserve much. Carbs are largely to blame for our country’s obesity epidemic and the many health problems that swim in its wake: high blood sugar, diabetes, heart disease, cancer and more.
But here’s the thing, not all carbs are created equal. So, before you swear off this misunderstood food group completely, let’s consider the whole truth about carbohydrates and bust some myths along the way …
We do need some carbs. I don’t think a carb-free or extremely low-carb diet is feasible for most people. Practically no one can stick with it – and it’s not clear we should.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Sure, energy derived from fat metabolism can assist, but carbs are the #1 fuel, particularly in the brain. In our digestive tract, carbohydrates are converted into glucose, the essential source of energy used by every cell in your body.
Simple vs Complex Carbs
Simple carbohydrates include sugars found in foods including table sugar, honey, fruit and fruit juice, to name a few. Complex carbohydrates are starches that include grain products and vegetables. Complex carbs can be broken down even further into refined and whole grain carbohydrates.
All carbs convert to glucose and elevate blood sugar, but some – generally the simple carbs – do it much faster than others. When carbs are complex and fiber-rich, the glucose is released into the bloodstream more slowly, making deadly spikes in blood sugar less likely. And the fiber makes you feel full, so you eat less.
Cleveland Clinic’s Julia Zumpano, a registered dietician, argues that “it’s the type and quantity of the carbs you eat – not carbohydrates themselves – that cause weight gain. Many carbs contain excess calories and sugar.”
Wondering which carbs to stay away from?
Basically, all processed, refined junk foods should be off the table (literally), while whole, fiber-rich foods (in moderation) get a green light.
These are four favorite high-carb foods that are incredibly healthy and satisfying…
This nutritious seed that’s prepared and eaten like a grain has become a mainstay in the natural health community. A serving of cooked quinoa has 21.3% carbohydrates, which puts it into the high carb realm. However, this super seed is also a good source of protein and fiber. What’s more, it’s rich in minerals and plant compounds that have been linked to health benefits such as blood sugar control.2 As an added benefit, this nutty tasting pseudocereal doesn’t contain gluten, making it a popular option for those on a gluten-free diet.
This sweet snack is high in carbohydrates, about 23%. Despite their high carb profile, bananas have a lot going for them. On the plus side, bananas are high in potassium, vitamin B6 and vitamin C. Due to their high potassium content, bananas may help regulate blood and improve heart health.3 And if you like your bananas on the green side, there’s more good news, as unripe bananas contain a resistant starch and pectin, which has been shown to help with digestive health. Resistant starches aren’t easily broken down in the digestive tract. This means they make it all the way to the colon, where they’re digested by your “friendly” bacteria and yield a wealth of valuable by-products.4
The old adage is accurate: an apple a day just may keep the doctor away –
and here’s why…
At 15% carbohydrates per serving, apples offer a fair amount of vitamin C, antioxidants and healthy plant compounds. Studies show that eating apples may improve blood sugar control and reduce the risk of heart disease. And other research points to how apples may decrease the risk of some types of cancer.5
Some people also call this member of the legume family garbanzo beans. But whatever you call them, there’s no denying their health benefits. A serving of cooked chickpeas offers 27.4% carbs, but 8% of that is healthy fiber. These beans are an excellent source of protein, as well as boosting many vitamins and minerals, including iron, phosphorus and a slew of B vitamins. Research has linked the consumption of chickpeas with improved heart and digestive health.6 For a healthy snack, I enjoy hummus, the delicious dip (or spread) made from chickpeas. You can eat it with vegetables — or crackers, if you want to cheat on the carbs a little.
The fact is, some of the healthiest foods are high in carbohydrates. The key to navigating the carb world is to skip refined and processed foods and instead choose whole grains, beans, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Become a label reader … avoid any foods that list high fructose corn syrup (you’d be surprised how many foods have it!). As far as that goes, avoid any foods with added sugar of any sort. If you do that, you won’t be eating many processed or “factory” foods – and that’s a goal to aim for.
In general, make your carbs count and opt for those foods that are rich with fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals.