What are healthy carbs?
Answering this question can be confusing. All carbs are not created equally. There is a big difference between a donut and a leaf of kale!
To help you improve your nutrition, this article will explain the differences between the different types of carbs and answer the question, what are healthy carbs?
What Are Carbs?
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients. Along with protein and fat, carbs make up the macronutrients that supply calories in the diet. Carbs are unique because they provide energy in the human digestive tract in the form of glucose.
Carbs are present in several forms:
- Fruits and vegetables.
- Grains, including wheat, rice, oats, millet, etc.
- Nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, soy, and other legumes.
- Dairy foods that contain milk.
- Refined carbs, which typically contain flour. Flour is ground up grains, such as wheat, that have the germ and bran removed. They include many products including bread, chips, crackers, pasta, cake, sweets, juice, etc.
- Sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Many foods contain added sugar, including soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Additionally, most packaged foods, such as peanut butter, salsa, deli meat, ketchup, salad dressing, and pasta sauce are all surprising foods that contain added sugar.
What Is the Purpose Of Carbs In Human Health?
You may remember from elementary biology that the body uses something called ATP to produce energy. The body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose to provide “energy” for cells in the form of ATP.
Many people think that carbs are necessary for energy, but this is untrue since you can produce ATP from both protein and fat. What is true is that the process is faster with carbs. Therefore, if you’re an athlete, carbs are your go-to food source.
On the other hand, if you are overweight, there can be benefits to relying on fat for a portion of your ATP production. Even if you’re not overweight, relying on fat for energy can be useful for weight management.
Another important role of carbs is fiber. Fiber slows digestion and feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut. Fibrous foods also moderate blood sugar, helping keep energy levels steady. Although how many carbs you should eat depends on your individual situation, studies consistently show that natural fiber in foods such as vegetables, fruit, and boiled grains is protective against several chronic diseases including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes.
Whole Vs. Refined Carbs
Whole carbohydrates are predominantly plant-based foods that grow in nature and contain fiber. They are also called complex carbs because they are digested slowly and haven’t had the fiber removed. Examples are vegetables, fruit, grains, tubers, and beans.
Refined carbs come from refined grains and other plants that have been stripped of fiber. Many refined carbs have added sugar. Refined carbs are also known as simple carbs because they are quickly digested due to their lack of intact fiber. This makes them easy to overeat. Examples include bread, cereal, pasta, chips, sweets, and foods and beverages with added sugar.
Most nutrition experts agree that you should limit refined carbs in favor of whole carbs. 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.
- These foods rarely contain any 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.
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 are 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. You can eat as much as you want 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 is 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.
Grains & Beans
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 that grains are high in calories. 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. Heirloom grains include millet, buckwheat, and amaranth 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 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.
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.