Although carbohydrates, or “carbs,” have gotten a bad rap for years – they’re considered a scourge by some popular diets – nutrition experts remind us that carbs are a key ingredient of a healthy diet.
“Carbs represent the main nutrient that readily converts into glucose, or sugar, in the bloodstream,” says Carla Duenas, a registered dietitian and Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist (CDCES) with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida. “Carbs provide the energy that your muscles and your brain need to function.”
Ms. Duenas says carbohydrates also provide important vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. When eaten in excess, however – and not as part of a balanced meal – she says that carbs can easily fuel spikes in blood sugar levels, leading to health issues such as weight gain and insulin resistance.
“Choosing the right carbs – and eating the appropriate portion size according to your needs – is important if you’re going to include them in your daily diet,” Ms. Duenas says, adding that there are simple carbs and complex carbs. “Some carbs are better than others,” she cautions.
Ms. Duenas says that simple carbs are those, which can be broken down quickly for energy, raising your blood sugar levels more easily. They include natural foods like fruits and milk as well as refined-sugar products such as cookies, pastries and other desserts as well as sugar-sweetened drinks. The naturally occurring sugars found in whole fruits are considered healthy when eaten as opposed to drinking the juice, because it is loaded with fiber, antioxidants and other important nutrients, she says.
Unsurprisingly, the refined-sugar products are the least nutritious, she says. On average, Americans consume about 13 percent of their daily calories from added sugars – that is, the sweet stuff many people add to their coffee or which tops the ingredient list in many sweetened beverages. “These simple carbs – especially sugary sodas and other drinks – have really helped contribute to the obesity epidemic here in the U.S.,” Ms. Duenas notes.
Known as the “healthy carbs” because they tend to be more nutritious, complex carbs take longer to break down into glucose, either from their molecular structure or because they are high in fiber which, according to Ms. Duenas, helps slow down the rates at which carbs are digested and blood sugars are raised.
“Most of us probably know what healthy carbs are,” says Ms. Duenas. “They include plant foods that deliver fiber, vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals such as those found in whole grains, beans and starchy vegetables.”
Whole grains vs. refined grains
Whole grains are healthier than refined grains, according to Ms. Duenas, because they are in their original state – the whole seed, or kernel, of the grain. “Whole grains have more nutrients than refined grains, which consist of a seed stripped of one or more its layers,” Ms. Duenas explains. “Some examples of whole grains are whole wheat, corn, brown rice, oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and rye.”
Ms. Duenas suggests reading nutrition labels and looking for brands that provide at least five percent of fiber per serving. “When reading the ingredient list, the key word to look for is “whole,” she adds.
Fruits and juices
Some people shy away from fruits and juices because they contain sugar or because they’re following a fad diet that eliminates all carbs. “Keep in mind that whole fruit is different,” Ms. Duenas explains. “A glass of orange juice is not the same as a whole orange because it lacks fiber.” An orange will provide a small amount of sugar paired with fiber, she says, while a glass of juice contains the sugar of five to six oranges with none of the healthy fiber. “Fruit juices, even if unsweetened, are not the best choices to be drinking regularly, Ms. Duenas adds.
What’s the right amount of carbs?
Factors such as your physical activity, age, weight, height and medical history can determine how many carbohydrates you should be consuming every day. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s “MyPlate” guidelines, in general about 25 percent of your daily “plate” should consist of whole grains or complex carbs. Half of your daily consumption should consist of whole fruits and vegetables, with the remaining 25 percent made up of lean proteins. It’s best to choose lean or low-fat meat and poultry,” Ms. Duenas advises.
Most restaurant menus now offer whole-grain options, according to Ms. Duenas, making it easier to eat healthier when dining out. “Always ask if they have a brown rice or whole wheat pasta or crust option,” she suggests. “It’s not the end of the world if they don’t – just make sure your meal also includes salad or vegetables and a lean protein.” Unfortunately, Ms. Duenas adds, most restaurant meals are big enough to feed two people and contain way too many carbs, making portion control a challenge.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, healthy carbs with good sources of dietary fiber include:
- Whole grain cereal (unsweetened)
- Whole Wheat
- Beans and legumes. (“Think black beans, kidney beans, pintos, chickpeas/garbanzos, white beans and lentils,” Ms. Duenas says.)
- Fruits and vegetables, especially those with edible skin (apples, corn, beans, etc.) and those with edible seeds (berries, pomegranate, etc.).
- Nuts and seeds. (“Try different kinds,” Ms. Duenas suggests. “Peanuts, walnuts, almonds, or flaxseeds are a good source of fiber and healthy fat but watch the portion sizes because they pack a lot of calories in a small amount.”)
When choosing carbs, Ms. Duenas says to remember that while the quality of the carbs consumed is important, so is the quantity. “Brown rice is healthier because it’s a whole grain and has fiber, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should add more of it to your plate,” she says.