Carbs are a very controversial food group. Nutrition experts don’t even agree about the ideal role of carbs in the diet, which makes it hard for you to know what to do about choosing the right carbs.
There’s also the fact that all carbs are not created equal. In fact, the foods that make up carbohydrates are more diverse and varied than those that comprise the other macronutrients of fat or protein.
To help you make an informed choice about carbs, this article will explain the different types of carbs and give you tips for including them in your diet.
What Are Carbs?
Carbs are split into three main categories:
1) Sugars are sweet, short chain carbohydrates. They include glucose, fructose, lactose, and sucrose.
2) Starch is made up of long chains of glucose molecules, which get broken down by the digestive system and enter the blood as glucose.
3) Fiber is indigestible by humans, but it can be used by the bacteria in the digestive system, which can be beneficial for health and body composition.
What Is the Purpose Carbs In Human Health?
Carbohydrates are broken down and turned into glucose to provide “energy” for cells in the form of ATP. Many people think that carbs are necessary for energy, but this actually isn’t true. You can produce ATP from both protein and fat, however, the process is faster with carbs. Therefore, if you’re an athlete, or need to quickly replenish energy stores due to fasting or a high activity requirements, carbs are your go-to food source.
Whole Vs. Refined Carbs
Whole carbohydrates are predominantly plant-based foods that grow in nature and contain fiber. Another name for them is complex carbs because they are digested slowly and haven’t had the fiber removed. Examples are vegetables, fruit, grains, tubers, and beans. Nuts and seeds contain carbs, but they are also made up by a decent amount of protein and fat. Carbs are also present in dairy products in the form of lactose.
Refined carbs are made from grains and other plants, but they are highly processed and stripped of fiber. Many refined carbs have added sugar. Refined carbs are called simple carbs because they are quickly digested due to their lack of intact fiber. Examples of refined carbs include bread, cereal, pasta, sweets, and foods and beverages with added sugar.
Most nutrition experts agree that refined carbs should be limited in the diet for a number of reasons. First, the average westerner gets at least 50 percent of their calories from refined grains. Our digestive systems are simply not able to cope effectively with so much sugar so fast.
Other reasons to avoid refined carbs include the following:
- They are calorically rich but nutritionally poor.
- They contain no useful fiber.
- They are rapidly digested, spiking blood sugar and insulin.
- Combined with a sedentary lifestyle, they increase risk of metabolic problems and diabetes.
- They trigger food intake by activating reward pathways in the brain, making you eat more calories than you would if you ate a similar food in unrefined form.
- They change the architecture of your brain over time because they alter neurotransmitter levels.
Why Do We Need Complex Carbs?
With all these problems you might wonder why eat any carbs at all. However, eliminating carbs brings hidden dangers. Here are key reasons to include complex carbs in your diet:
Reduce Inflammation: Complex carbs provide antioxidants and other nutrients necessary for removing free radicals and keeping inflammation at bay.
Support Digestion: Naturally occurring fiber is essential for healthy digestion and it lowers risk of diseases including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Get Restful Sleep: Healthy carbs lower the stress hormone cortisol, enabling restful sleep.
Athletic Performance: Carbohydrates allow many athletes to perform well because they improve replenishment of muscle glycogen stores.
Better Mood: Complex carbs provide the building blocks necessary for the body to synthesize the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, which can improve mood and well being.
Top Ten Complex Carbs
Without further ado, here are the top ten complex carbs to include in your diet. Be sure to read the recommendations at the end of the article regarding how many carbs to include based on individual goals.
#1: Sweet Potatoes & Related Tubers
The people of Okinawa Japan are one of the longest living populations on the planet. Researchers think this is partly due to their unique diet: At least 70 percent of the calories are from sweet potatoes and yams. These bright-orange tubers are packed with antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins making them one of the healthiest foods on the planet.
Technically considered a seed, quinoa is composed of an exceptional nutritional balance between carbs, protein, and fat, making it beneficial for brain function and cell membrane health. Great for a post-workout meal or with dinner, eat quinoa with vegetables or spices that enhance glucose uptake.
#3: Lentils & Legumes
Beans and lentils are some of the healthiest complex carbs, being high in fiber, while also providing a balanced macronutrient profile to fight hunger. Lentils have the highest phytonutrient levels of all legumes making them protective against many stress-related diseases including heart disease, high blood pressure, and inflammation.
There’s on end to the different variations of squash that can lighten up your meals: Butternut, acorn, spaghetti squash, yellow summer squash, and zucchini are just a few that are packed with nutrients and fiber, while being relatively low in overall carbohydrate content. Try them baked, sautéed with greens, or as a substitute for popular refined carbs like regular pasta noodles.
#5: Bananas & Other Whole Fruits
Fruits are rich in a variety of phytonutrients that have many health-enhancing properties. For example, blueberries contain anthocyanins that reduce inflammation and protect against everything from diabetes to cancer. Being low in calories, they are the perfect food if you’re trying to lose fat.
But if you’re goal is exercise recovery, pineapple, watermelon, or bananas may be a better choice. For example, bananas have the ability to raise the sleep hormone melatonin as well as significantly improve blood antioxidant levels. Plus, they contain prebiotics, which are compounds on which the beneficial bacteria in your gut thrive, making them an excellent anti-stress food.
#6: Millet, Buckwheat & Amaranth
Millet, buckwheat, and amaranth are all heirloom grains that have been cultivated for over 7,000 years by ingenious populations. They are also gluten-free and highly nutritious, containing more vitamins and minerals than most other grains. Because of their high fiber and antioxidant content, all three are beneficial for blood sugar control, making them the perfect “comfort” food to eat with your evening meal or for post-workout glycogen replenishment.
Oats are a highly nutritious gluten-free cereal that contains a healthy form of fiber called beta glucan that is known to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Oats are unique because they have a blend of different forms of starch, which makes them great both for replenishing energy stores and managing blood sugar.
The cool thing about rice is there are a number of different varieties—each with their own benefit. Brown rice has all the fiber and nutrients, but it also contains phytic acid, which makes it difficult for humans to absorb minerals.
White rice has less fiber and a higher glycemic index, which makes it great for athletes who need fast restoration of glycogen, and it’s much lower in phytic acid as well as having less arsenic than brown rice.
Your rice options don't stop there: Both jasmine and basmati rice have a wonderful aroma and flavor, whereas red and black rice are packed with antioxidants and nutrients along with nutty flavors.
#9: Leafy Green Vegetables
The great thing about leafy greens is that you can eat them to abandon because they are so low in calories but packed with nutrition and fiber. And don’t stop with kale and lettuce! There’s a gazillion leafy greens to try.
Here are a few of the best ones: Rainbow and Swiss chard contain antioxidants that are linked with cancer prevention and blood sugar management. Collards are fiber-rich and delicious. Arugula is packed with nitrates, which will improve blood flow and may enhance exercise capacity.
#10: Colorful Vegetables: Peppers, Eggplant, Beets, Etc.
Red and yellow peppers, eggplant, beets, carrots, purple cabbage, artichokes, and asparagus—all those colors mean you’re getting a wider array of health promoting antioxidants that are linked with better blood sugar management, less inflammation, and healthier skin and eyesight.
How Many Carbs?
The grand question of the day is how many of these delicious complex carbs should you eat?
Everyone is different and the key is to identify the optimal carb intake based on your goals, body composition, and genetics.
If you’re sedentary and want to reduce body fat with a low-carb diet, you’ll probably want to eat less than 50 grams of carbs a day. This means that you’ll need to restrict carb intake to leafy green and low-carb vegetables, a serving of berries or other lower carb fruit, and a serving of nuts, seeds, beans, or dairy.
However, if you add exercise to that equation, you’ll be able to raise your carb intake to 50 to 100 grams on training days. In this situation, you can add a serving or two of higher carb foods from the complex carb list above. For reference, a medium sweet potato has about 25 grams of carbs and a half-cup of dry oats has 27 grams of carbs.
This complex carb list will really come in handy for athletes and individuals who are training hard and need to replenish glycogen stores post-workout. Depending on your unique situation, you’ll likely want to eat anywhere from 100 to 200 grams a day of complex carbs. Some hardcharging athletes may need to go even higher, with some scientists recommending 3 g/kg or more a day.
What About Cheat Meals?
In case you haven’t heard, cheat meals refer to a planned deviation from a diet. Cheat meals are generally used once every 5 to 7 days. They are most common for people on lower carb diets and allow you to double your daily carb intake. It’s recommended that you make smart “cheat” choices, choosing foods from the list above.