What Are Healthy Carbs?
Carbohydrates are one of the most controversial food groups. Nutrition experts don’t even agree on the proper role of carbs in the diet, which makes it hard for us to know which carbs we should be eating on a regular basis.
Part of the controversy stems from the fact that not all carbs are created equal. There is a big difference between a donut and a stalk of broccoli!
To help you make informed choices, this article will explain some of the distinctions between different carbs and provide insight on exactly what healthy carbs are.
Whole Vs. Refined Carbs
The simplest distinction we can make between carbs is whole vs refined. Whole carbs are plant-based foods including vegetables, fruit, grains, beans, and nuts that grow in nature and contain intact fiber.
Fiber is important because it slows digestion, leading to a more moderate increase in blood sugar. This is beneficial for lowering diabetes risk and managing appetite. Fiber also conveys several health benefits, including improving cholesterol levels and lowering inflammation.
An important distinction is that there is a difference between the naturally occurring fiber provided in whole carbs and the processed fiber that is added to refined carbs. For example, you might have heard the news that Coke just came out with a new fiber-containing diet soda.
“Fiber Coke” is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the whole range of processed carbs that advertise their added fiber: Cereals, protein bars, juice, pasta, chocolate and so on. Unfortunately, these processed fibers have little benefit on health and they come packed in products filled with artificial flavors, sugar, and refined grains.
Refined carbs are often called “simple” carbs because they are quickly digested due to their lack of intact fiber. This makes them easy to overeat and is associated with spikes to blood sugar and insulin, which contributes to obesity and diabetes risk. Examples of refined carbs include bread, cereal, pasta, chips, sweets, and foods and beverages with added sugar. Most nutrition experts agree that refined carbs should be limited in the diet in favor of whole carbs.
Low Vs. High Carb Whole Foods
Another way to classify plant-based foods are in terms of how many carbs they contain. Making this distinction can be useful if you are on a low-carb diet or are trying to create a calorie deficit to lose weight.
Let’s consider vegetables: There are starchy vegetables that are higher in calories and carbs, such as sweet potatoes, potatoes, beets, corn, winter squash, and peas. These foods can be considered healthy because they contain a range of nutrients, fiber, and in many cases antioxidants. However, they are also relatively high in calories, making it necessary to be aware of portions if you are trying to lose body fat.
Then there are fibrous vegetables, which are low in calories and carbs, such as leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, peppers, eggplant, celery, cucumbers, etc. These foods are often considered “free for all” foods that you can eat as much as you want of even when trying to lose weight because they are so low in calories but jam-packed with nutrients.
Similar distinctions can be made for fruit. Lower carb fruits include berries, kiwi, and apricots. Examples of higher carb fruits are pineapples, pears, and mangos. All fruit can be considered “healthy” due to its high fiber, nutrient, and antioxidant content.
A common question is if fruit can make you fat. Although association studies show that people who eat more servings of fruit tend to be leaner, eating huge quantities has the potential to contribute to an increase in body fat due to the calories it contains.
Next, let’s look at grains and beans. Beans and lentils are healthy complex carbs that are high in fiber and provide a balanced blend of protein and carbs as well as some fat. Lentils have the highest phytonutrient levels of all legumes and are protective against many stress-related diseases including heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
When it comes to grains, things get a little confusing. The first thing to be aware of is the fact that grains are high in calories, which is a consideration of you’re trying to lose body fat. A cup of rice or buckwheat has 200 calories whereas a cup of kale or cauliflower has about 30 calories.
Another issue is the difference between heirloom versus modern grains. Millet, buckwheat, and amaranth are all heirloom grains that have been cultivated for over 7,000 years. They are highly nutritious, high in fiber and antioxidants, and contain more vitamins and minerals than most other grains. In contrast, modern wheat or corn are low in nutrients and rich in calories, triggering a greater release of insulin than heirloom grains.
Finally, there is the concern of gluten (a protein contained in some grains, including wheat, rye, and barley). For anyone with celiac disease or who feels better on a gluten-free diet, choosing gluten-free carbs is the healthier choice.
Final Words: As you can see there are a number considerations when determining which carbs are going to be healthiest for you. Here are a few take away points for choosing healthy carbs:
Whole food carbs are always a better choice than refined or processed carbs.
Leafy green and fibrous veggies can be eaten in larger quantities than starchy carbs.
Choose lower carb fruits if you’re on a lower carb diet or concerned with sugar or calories.
Opt for heirloom grains over wheat, rice, and other modern grains.
If weight loss or diabetes prevention are a concern, favor vegetables over grains to lower the insulin response to meals and get a higher intake of nutrients per calorie.
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