Carbohydrates have been a hot topic for many years – for the good, the bad, and the ugly. Many diets from the past few decades demonize carbohydrates and claim that they automatically ‘fatten you up’ and lead to diabetes and other health conditions, but beware: snubbing the good carbs may hinder your health and fitness goals. As with most bold nutrition claims ostracizing one food group or ingredient, there’s always more to the story, and this article will cover the full picture.
What are Carbohydrates (aka carbs)?
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (along with proteins and fats) that your body requires daily and are your body’s main source of energy. They help fuel your brain, kidneys, heart muscles, and central nervous system.
There are three main types of carbohydrates: starches, fiber, and sugars. Starches and carbs that are high in fiber are often referred to as complex carbohydrates. They are found in grains, legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils, and starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn.
Sugars are known as simple carbohydrates. There are natural sugars in vegetables, fruits, and dairy (which are still good for you). Added sugars are found in processed foods, syrups, sugary drinks, and sweets.
What Are Clean Carbs Actually?
‘Clean’ foods and ‘clean eating’ are terms coined by the diet industry that originally started off with good intentions – consume more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats — and limit highly processed snack foods, sweets, and other packaged foods.
Therefore, ‘clean’ carbs would refer to carbs that are minimally processed, and more whole food choices, such as grains, starches, fruits, vegetables, and dairy.
While this may sound good in theory, labeling foods as clean has been shown to cause anxiety and unnecessary fears around foods that may be therefore considered ‘unclean’ or ‘bad’. We all have to eat, and we’re all human – is it realistic to avoid having a slice of pizza or a piece of cake from time to time?
For most people, no. It’s not realistic nor is it necessary, because as with anything – ‘the dose makes the poison’. If our diet is made up of 80% minimally processed, whole foods that contain the nutrients our bodies need for health, and 20% treats/convenience foods, it’s the 80% that is going to reflect on our health.
We also know that labeling foods as ‘clean’/’unclean’ or rather ‘good’/’bad’ and telling ourselves that ‘bad’ foods are forbidden, can psychologically make us want those ‘bad’ foods more and lead to excessive restriction and then binging.
What are The Best Sources of Carbs?
To reap the benefits of carbohydrates, you should choose carbohydrates loaded with nutrients. For instance, fiber is a carbohydrate that aids in digestion, helps you feel full, and keeps blood cholesterol levels in check. Your body can store extra carbohydrates in your muscles and liver for use when you’re not getting enough carbohydrates in your diet.
A carbohydrate-deficient diet may cause headaches, fatigue, weakness, difficulty concentrating, nausea, constipation, bad breath, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Therefore, the best sources of carbohydrates would be whole grains, fruits, starchy and non-starchy vegetables, legumes, dairy products, nuts, seeds, and soy products.
15 Foods That are ‘Healthy’ aka Nutritious Carb Choices
Healthy, nutritious carbohydrate-rich foods include:
Studies show that oats and oatmeal have many health benefits, including helping to lower blood sugar levels and a reduced risk of heart disease. They’re a gluten-free whole grain and a great source of important vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants.
Oatmeal is also can provide fullness both at that meal and for a long period of time, due to the beta-glucan in oatmeal delaying the time it takes for food to empty your stomach.
Quinoa has become more popular in recent years, although it has been around for over 7000 years already. Originally from South America and known as an ‘ancient grain,’ this food is actually not a grain, but a seed.
Quinoa has a myriad of health benefits and has become one of the world’s most popular health foods. It’s very versatile and high in many nutrients your body needs, including quercetin which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Amaranth has increased in popularity throughout the U.S. as more people have become aware of its impressive nutritional profile. Amaranth’s nutty, pleasantly sweet flavor and versatility make it a perfect choice for many recipes.
Amaranth is naturally gluten-free and thus is a good option for people with Celiac disease, a condition in which an immune system reaction to wheat gluten can damage the small intestine. It is also high in fiber, protein, and other nutrients, including antioxidants.
Barley is a cereal grain with a chewy texture and mild, nutty flavor. Hulled barley is considered a whole grain, as only the inedible outer shell has been removed during processing.
However, the more commonly available pearled barley is not a whole grain because the fiber-containing bran has been removed. Though pearled barley is still a good source of some nutrients, hulled barley is the healthier option.
Whole Grain Bread and Cereals
Grains are the seeds of grass-like plants called cereals. Some of the most common varieties are corn, rice, and wheat. Whole grains have been a part of the human diet for tens of thousands of years, and although many fad diet proponents claim that eating grains is harmful to health, it’s been shown over and over that a diet high in whole grains has been linked to a lower risk of chronic diseases.
In a large study of over 360,000 people, those with the highest consumption of whole grains, such as barley, had a 17% lower risk of death from all causes, including cancer and diabetes, compared to those with the lowest whole-grain intake.
Other studies have shown that eating whole grains may reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes and obesity.
The benefits of whole grains may stem from not only its fiber content but also phytonutrients, which are plant compounds with beneficial effects on health.
Brown Rice, Wild Rice, and Basmati Rice
Certain forms of rice are minimally processed and contain both soluble fiber and resistant starches, which are both beneficial to health. Rice is a good source of resistant starch, which means it is resistant to digestion, especially when it’s left to cool after cooking.
The main reason why resistant starch works, is that it functions like soluble, fermentable fiber. It goes through your stomach and small intestine undigested, eventually reaching your colon where it feeds your friendly gut bacteria. Resistant starch also has other health benefits, including colon health and blood sugar management. Certain rice types, such as brown, wild, and basmati, are also higher in fiber and lower on the glycemic index.
Berries such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, are loaded with compounds that have a host of health benefits for the body. Berries are a great source of antioxidants, such as anthocyanins, ellagic acid, and resveratrol.
In addition to protecting your cells, these plant compounds may reduce disease risk. Test-tube and human studies also suggest that they may protect your cells from high blood sugar levels, help increase insulin sensitivity, and reduce blood sugar and insulin response to high-carb meals
Citrus fruits such as lemons and oranges, apples, melons, bananas, etc., are all excellent sources of essential vitamins and minerals, fiber, as well as health-promoting/cancer-fighting antioxidants. There’s no one specific fruit to pinpoint as a ‘healthy’ or ‘clean’ carb source because with both fruits and vegetables, variety is key. Those who eat a variety of different colors and types of fruits (and vegetables) have a reduced risk of developing heart disease, cancer, inflammation, and diabetes.
Sweet potatoes are nutritious, high in fiber, very filling, and delicious. They can be eaten boiled, baked, steamed, or fried. A medium sweet potato has about 140 calories and 5 grams of fiber, among many other nutrients. Sweet potatoes also have a low glycemic index score, meaning they have less of an impact on your blood sugars. They are also rich in an antioxidant called beta-carotene, which is very effective at raising blood levels of vitamin A, particularly in children
Corn is a starchy vegetable and cereal grain that has been eaten all over the world for centuries. It’s rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and relatively low in fat. Corn has a low glycemic index. It releases slowly into your bloodstream, so it won’t spike your blood sugar levels, but rather delivers long-lasting energy and feelings of fullness. Due to its impressive nutrient profile, most people can benefit from eating whole corn and popcorn as part of a balanced diet. It’s also a naturally gluten-free food and can be eaten by those who avoid gluten.
Non-starchy vegetables are very good for our health as they contain plenty of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients called phytochemicals. Vegetables are a good source of dietary fiber, which helps to aid digestion and has been shown to play a part in lowering cholesterol. Examples include cabbage, spinach, carrots, cucumber, squash, asparagus, celery, leeks, broccoli, mushrooms, and more.
Strictly speaking, green peas are not vegetables. They are part of the legume family, which consists of plants that produce pods with seeds inside. Their calorie content is fairly low, with only 62 calories per 1/2-cup (170-gram) serving, and best of all, peas contain just about every vitamin and mineral you need, in addition to a significant amount of fiber and a good source of protein, especially for those who eat plant-based.
Beans such as black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, etc., are commonly eaten around the world and are a rich source of fiber, protein, and many other nutrients, including B vitamins. They are also a great replacement for meat as a source of plant-based protein and have a number of health benefits, including reducing cholesterol, decreasing blood sugar levels, and increasing healthy gut bacteria.
Dairy products are one of the more controversial foods out there these days. There are people that claim it promotes inflammation in the body, but this just isn’t what is shown in the research, especially for those who are not intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk. Dairy foods are a convenient, healthy way to consume a variety of nutrients that are beneficial to health, including protein, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, and more.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are good sources of protein, healthy fats, fibers, vitamins, and minerals. Nuts and seeds can help with managing healthy body weight as their fats and fiber are not fully absorbed, they regulate food intake and help burn energy. While your body can’t digest fiber, the bacteria that live in your colon can. Many types of fiber function as prebiotics or food for your healthy gut bacteria.
Nuts and seeds also have compounds that fight inflammation and have protective factors for the heart.
Examples include almonds, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, hemp hearts, chia seeds, flax seeds, sunflower seeds, and so much more.
Carbs You May Want to Limit
Refined carbs are also known as simple carbs or processed carbs, and have been stripped of almost all fiber, vitamins, and minerals. They are digested quickly and have a high glycemic index. This means that they lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels after meals. Eating refined carbs is linked to a drastically increased risk of many diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Almost every nutrition expert agrees that refined carbs should be limited.
There are two main types of refined carbs:
- “Free” or “Added” Sugars (natural sugars are not an issue): Refined and processed sugars, such as sucrose (table sugar), high fructose corn syrup, and agave syrup.
- Refined grains: These are grains that have had the fibrous and nutritious parts removed. The biggest source is white flour made from refined wheat.
Highly refined carbs to limit or avoid:
- sugary breakfast cereals
- cookies, muffins, and other baked products
- flavored and sweetened yogurt
- potato chips
- sugary juices and sodas
- Heavily processed foods such as fast foods
Again, does this mean we will never have a slice of pizza or a chocolate bar? No, it just means that we should limit these foods because they can cause health issues when eaten in excess.
Can Choosing Healthy Carbs Help You Lose Weight?
Yes, as we can see from the list of healthy carbs above, many not only have protein, fiber, and other nutrients that can help you to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, but they also have powerful antioxidants that can help manage blood sugars, reduce risk of cancer, protect the heart, and so much more.
The increases in your blood sugar and insulin levels are moderate enough that they don’t reach levels associated with body-fat storage. Plus, they make your good gut bacteria happy – the gut microbiota prefers complex carbs over any other food source.
Many whole foods that are high in carbs are incredibly healthy and nutritious, and limiting carbs can actually cause more damage than good – because you are limiting so many foods that have powerful vitamins, minerals, and nutrients and that are food for our gut.
On the other hand, refined or simple carbs have had most of the nutrients and fiber removed, and when consumed in excess can certainly lead to issues with blood sugar management, low energy, increases in weight, and ultimately lead to other health complications such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Especially if you’re consistently replacing nutritious food sources with highly refined choices.
About the Author
Felicia is a Registered Dietitian and nutritionist with a Master’s in Applied Human Nutrition. She has a strong wellness background and experience of working at research centers and healthcare/private practice for 12+ years.
Felicia is passionate about helping others fight through the massive amounts of nutrition misinformation in the online world, and to navigate life and health, but most importantly, enjoying it while doing it.