Carbohydrates, or carbs, have received a bad rap over the years. Yes, eating too many can result in outcomes like weight gain and increased diabetes risk. But eating the right carbs in the right quantities can support your health goals in a major way. And since experts suggest that the bulk of your plate consists of carbs from different food groups, it is important to know which healthy carbs to pick.
What Do Carbs Do For Your Body?
Carbs are one of the three macronutrients that the body uses to perform everyday functions — the two others being protein and fat. Known to be the body’s main source of energy, carbs are broken down into glucose to be used to keep the body fueled. Carbs that are not used as immediate energy are stored as fat.
Fiber is also a carb but is not used as fuel. Rather, fiber is an indigestible starch that can act as fuel for gut bacteria and is also used as roughage to help support healthy bowel movements and gut function. Plus, eating fiber has been linked to increased satiety.
Foods that naturally contain carbs include grains, rice, certain fruits, starchy vegetables, beans, peas, and milk. Sugar, honey, maple syrup, and other sweet ingredients naturally contain carbs as well.
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The Different Types Of Carbs: Simple Vs. Complex
While all carbs supply fuel for your body, some choices offer more “bang for your buck” in the nutrition department vs. others.
To understand which carbs should be a mainstay on your plate, being aware of the differences between simple and complex carbohydrates will help you navigate your food choices in the healthiest way.
Essentially, carbohydrate foods are made up of sugars, starches, fiber, or a combination of these components. The carbohydrate make-up dictates whether it is considered to be a simple or complex carb — and thus helps people know if it is a better-for-you choice or not.
Simple carbs are those that are primarily made up of sugars and digest quickly in the body after they have been eaten.
Eating simple carbs can be a part of a healthy diet, with some caveats. While simple carb choices like fruit and milk offer a slew of nutrients, eating them can result in a blood sugar spike. Eating them with some protein, fat, or fiber can help make your carbohydrate meal or snack more satisfying. Keeping the skin on your fruit or choosing 2% milk instead of skim can help circumvent this challenge.
Other simple carbs are not naturally occurring and include foods like soda, candy, honey, sugar, and cookies. These foods not only spike blood sugars, but they do not offer a lot in terms of nutrition — in other words, they are known as “empty calorie” foods.
Lastly, some choices are refined, meaning that the bran and the germ portion of the grain is removed. What is left is the endosperm — the part of the grain that is typically white, fiber-free, and lacking in antioxidants and certain nutrients. An example of a refined grain is white rice — which is essentially brown rice that had the bran and germ removed. White bread and white pasta are examples of refined carbs as well.
When you are adding carbs to your diet, complex choices should make up the bulk of your servings.
Complex carbs contain the bran and the germ of the grain (AKA fiber), which makes the digestion process slower and provides the body with important nutrients like B vitamins. So choosing whole grain bread instead of white, brown rice instead of white, and whole-grain barley instead of pearled barley will give your body more bang for the buck in the nutrition department.
Foods that fall under the complex carbs category include vegetables (including potatoes and corn), whole grains, and legumes (beans).
The Best Carbs To Include In A Healthy Diet
Among the sea of carbohydrate choices out there, there are some better-for-you choices vs. others. And when deciding between simple and complex choices, complex typically takes the cake. While you don’t want to completely eliminate simple carb choices like milk and fruit, it’s best to limit other choices like sugars and refined carb choices.
When perusing the grocery aisles or deciding what you should include in your next meal, choosing complex carbs will help you feel fuller longer, support gut health, and fuel your body with important nutrients.
Some of the best carbs to include in your healthy lifestyle include brown rice, oatmeal, farro, air-popped popcorn, sweet potatoes, lentils, whole grain bread, chickpeas, and whole-grain crackers.
And if you are choosing healthier, simple carb options like fruit, milk, or yogurt, be sure to eat an appropriate portion size, so you don’t give your body the opportunity to experience a blood sugar spike.
It’s All About Balance
Keep in mind that a healthy diet is all about balance — carbs, protein, and fat all play important roles in your overall wellness, and choosing nutrient-dense options from all of these groups will help you achieve your health goals in a delicious and satisfying way.
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