Following a healthy diet is one of the most effective measures you can take to support your health and well-being, and the carbohydrates you eat can make or break you. The right ones will provide slow, steady-release energy along with important nutrients; the wrong carbs, such as high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar, and bleached flour, can set you back and actively work against your pursuit of health. Here, we’ll cover what you need to know to choose the best sources.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Along with fat and protein, carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients. Their primary function in the human body is to provide energy. Carbs, which are categorized as simple or complex, encompass a broad range of sugars, starches, and fiber.
Sugar, Starch, and Fiber
In nature, sugar is found in animal milk and fruit. Sugar is categorized as either monosaccharides or disaccharides. Monosaccharides, which are the simplest of sugars, are individual sugar molecules. The human diet contains three monosaccharides—glucose, fructose, and galactose. Individual monosaccharides combine to form disaccharides: maltose (glucose + glucose = malt sugar), sucrose (glucose + fructose = table sugar), and lactose (glucose + galactose = milk sugar).
Starches, also called polysaccharides or complex carbohydrates, are longer chains of individual sugar molecules.
Fiber, which is undigestible, non-starch polysaccharides, encourages bowel regularity and significantly reduces the risk of many lifestyle-related conditions. Dietary fiber also feeds the health-promoting microbes in the gut to boost immune function, encourage healthy weight and metabolism, and even influence mental well-being.[5, 6, 7]
What Are Complex Carbohydrates?
Simply put, complex carbs are the good carbs you should base your diet on. Complex carbs are sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains. Because of that structure, the body digests them slowly and they generally don’t produce a spike in blood sugar. Oatmeal, brown rice, beans, green vegetables, and alternative grains are all good sources of complex carbs. As you might guess from those examples, one of the benefits of complex carbohydrates is that they’re typically a good source of vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients.
What Are Simple Carbohydrates?
Simple carbohydrates, also called simple sugars, are just that—simple. They’re comprised of one or two sugar molecules and the body is able to digest them quickly, which makes them a fast-acting source of energy. If, for example, you’re an athlete in the middle of a competition and need energy to burn, that can be a good thing. But, if you’re sedentary, simple carbs are more likely to spike your blood sugar and make you gain weight.
Not all simple carbohydrates are bad. Fresh fruit provides simple carbs, but it also provides fiber. Simple carbs with fiber are more like complex carbs, and the body digests and absorbs them more slowly.
Refined Carbohydrates: Too Simple
Conversely, removing fiber from complex carbohydrates will cause your body to react like it would to simple carbohydrates. These carbs, often referred to as refined carbohydrates, come from whole, natural foods, but they’ve been processed to the point that they no longer resemble their original form. High fructose corn syrup and bleached white flour are common examples. High fructose corn syrup is better described as a chemical sweetener than a natural corn product. Pasta, white bread, and even fruit juice are examples of refined carbs.
The questionable value of fruit juice is a surprise to many people. It’s easy to think a large quantity of fresh fruit juice is nothing but good, but keep in mind that the fiber has been removed and the simple sugars remain, sometimes a remarkably high amount of sugar. It’s best to limit your intake of simple carbohydrates, especially if they’re refined. If you need to clean up your diet, eliminating simple sugars is the best place to start.
Choosing the Right Carbohydrates
Selecting the right carbs is easy when you keep a few fundamental guidelines in mind.
Eat Your Vegetables
First, build your diet around whole, organic vegetables and fruit. Plant-based nutrients encourage graceful aging, promote healthy cell division, and reduce your risk of lifestyle-related health conditions. Lean toward produce that has bright, vibrant colors as it provides a wide spectrum of phytonutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Unfortunately, less than 3% of adults get enough fiber every day. That’s no surprise, considering 76% of Americans don’t eat enough fruit and 87% don’t eat enough vegetables. As a rule of thumb, I try to consume twice as many vegetables as fruit.
Beans, Seeds, Nuts, and Alternative Grains
Legumes like lentils, beans, and peas are nutrient dense and versatile. Seeds and nuts, especially almonds, walnuts, macadamias, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds are good sources of carbs. When selecting starchy foods, such as rice, bread, or any other product made from flour, it’s best to opt for whole grain versions. Whole grain foods affect blood glucose levels more slowly than other carbs.
Many people depend on the glycemic index to determine if their food is a good source of carbs. The glycemic index rates carbs according to how quickly they raise blood sugar. Although the glycemic index can provide food for thought, it’s best to treat the index as more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule. Some research suggests the accuracy of the glycemic index may vary.
Good Sources of Carbohydrates
There are a number of good sources of carbohydrates that provide energy and important nutrients without artificial ingredients or additives.
Organic steel cut or rolled oats
Organic nuts and seeds
Organic whole, unprocessed grains: quinoa, spelt, buckwheat, millet, and wheat berries
Organic legumes: black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, and mung beans
Organic fruit: berries, tomatoes, and citrus fruits
Organic vegetables: beets, carrots, purple potatoes, sweet potatoes, and winter squash
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