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August 03, 2018

Jamie Lee, dietitian in training

If you believe today’s internet nutrition wars, carbohydrates have become an infamous foe rather than friend. Recent fad diets have suggested that we need to drastically reduce or eliminate carbs from our plates and lives.

However, carbohydrates are needed by our body to carry out normal functions and are, in fact, the body’s main and preferred source of fuel upon conversion to glucose [1]. The decision we make about carbs shouldn’t be to avoid them or not, but more so which types of carbs to eat and in what portion!

 

Which Carbs are Okay to Eat Daily?  

Carbs can be categorized into starch, fiber and sugars. Starch and fiber are known as complex carbs while sugars are simple carbs [2]

The complex carbs take longer to break down into glucose and enter our bloodstream. They provide us with energy more consistently (think slow and steady) and don’t cause a huge spike in insulin, thus helping with blood glucose control [2]. Fiber helps maintain bowel health, makes us feel full for longer, and can also keep our blood glucose well-controlled.

Starch and fiber can be found in foods such as legumes (beans and lentils), root vegetables (potatoes, beets), fruits, whole grains (oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice) and whole grain products (bread, pasta). These carbs are okay to eat daily!

which healthy carbs to eat whole grains beans

Which Carbs to Eat in Moderation?

We often hear that “white carbs” like white bread, white rice and white pasta should be avoided. Is this true? 

Though these are sources of complex carbs, they are refined. Refined carbs come from grains that are stripped of their nutrient-dense parts (bran and germ) during processing. This leaves just the endosperm, which does not have much fiber or essential nutrients anymore [1].

Consequently, without the fiber, these refined carbs digest into glucose very quickly and can lead to uncontrolled spikes in blood glucose [3]. Choosing whole grains over refined grains is a simple way to improve your diet.

Similar to refined carbs, simple carbs (sugars) hit the bloodstream fast and may overwhelm the body’s ability to use them [3]. However, it’s important to note that not all simple carbs are “bad” either; it depends on the source of the sugar and the quantity you’re eating.  Simple carbs can be found in fruit and dairy products as naturally-occuring sugars, and they’re also added to processed foods such as candy, baked goods and soda.

For a healthier diet, minimize sweets and items with added sugars, as they don’t provide many nutrients other than energy (calories). If taken in excess, these foods can lead to weight gain and a host of chronic diseases [2].  On the other hand, foods that contain only natural sugars, such as whole fruit, have no unnecessary added sugars, and contain many other nutrients that are beneficial to us such as vitamins, minerals and fiber [1]. Looking at labels and reading the ingredient list will allow you to identify foods that have added sugars.

How Much Should I be Eating?

One simple trick to remember is to keep your carbohydrate portion for a meal to about the size of your closed fist.

Here are some examples of healthy carbs in reasonable portions:

Simple carbs:

simple carbs berries

  • ½-1 cup of berries
  • 1 or 2 fresh fruits
  • ⅔ cup plain yogurt

 Complex carbs:

  • ½ cup legumes (lentils, black beans, chickpeas, etc)
  • ½ cup hummus
  • 1 cup cooked oatmeal
  • ½ cup cooked grains, such as brown rice, barley, quinoa, buckwheat, etc
  • 1 slice of whole grain bread or 1 tortilla
  • 1 baked white or sweet potato (or other starchy vegetables)
  • 4-6 crackers

When it comes to desserts and sugary treats, we wouldn’t tell you to never eat them, as they are part of our traditions and celebrations. Just keep them to occasional treats rather than everyday foods, and remember that portion size matters. ½ cup of great quality ice cream goes a long way.  

To summarize, carbs play an important part in a healthy diet, providing us with energy, fiber and many important nurtients. The key is not avoidance but making choices that support health. Eat the best sources of carbs in reasonable amounts and you’re good to go!

References

  1. Larson H. Children Need Carbohydrates [Internet]. www.eatright.org. 2014 [cited 20 November 2017]. Available from:http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/children-need-carbohydrates
  2. Denny S. Carbohydrates — Part of a Healthful Diabetes Diet [Internet]. www.eatright.org. 2015 [cited 20 November 2017]. Available from:http://www.eatright.org/resource/health/diseases-and-conditions/diabetes/carbohydrates-part-of-a-healthful-diabetes-diet
  3. Trivedi, B. (2006). The good the fad and the unhealthy. New Scientist191(2570), 42-49. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/s0262-4079(06)60559-9

 


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