These days, carbohydrates (carbs) are the most misunderstood macronutrient of the three. In the current era of the ketogenic diet, carbs are misconceived as the macronutrient you should avoid at all costs. But really, they are what your body and brain need the most to function at their best. In fact, the USDA/DHHS Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends that we consume 65% of our total energy for the day in the form of carbs.
“There’s an automatic negative perception around carbs, just as there is an automatic positive association with protein,” says Rachael Hartley, R.D., registered dietitian and author of Gentle Nutrition. “Because of this perception, many people think that eating healthy means limiting carbohydrates, when in reality, carbs are the body’s preferred source of fuel, and a valuable source of vitamins, minerals and fiber.”
Editor’s note: Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to go on a diet or change your eating habits, we invite you to gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
Scientifically-speaking, carbs are sugar molecules that get broken down into glucose or blood sugar to provide energy to cells, tissues and organs. Sources of carbs are grains, starchy vegetables, dairy and fruit. Generally, there are two types of carbs – complex carbs (found in foods like whole grains and starchy veggies) and simple (found in refined white grains and fruit). All carbs, including the less nutritious ones, offer energy and nutrients, and can fit into a balanced intake. “All foods serve a purpose, and even ‘unhealthy’ carbohydrate foods can provide benefits, and even be the healthier choice in certain situations,” says Harley.
When putting together this list of healthy carb examples, however, we looked for nutrient-dense carbohydrates, specifically complex carbs, which offer more fiber than simple ones, and have naturally occurring sugar that will help keep your energy up.
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Research has linked consuming oats, which are a source of complex carbs, with lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL or “lousy cholesterol”) levels. Plus, the prebiotic fiber found in oats help fuel your body’s probiotics, the friendly bacteria that lives in your GI tract.
“I love oatmeal because it makes a tasty and satisfying breakfast, and also contains cholesterol-lowering, gut-friendly soluble fiber,” says Hartley.
You can include oats in your intake in a variety of ways, including overnight oats, and warm oatmeal topped with fruit and nuts or nut butter.
All types of berries are good sources of complex carbs and are packed with nutrients. For example, blueberries are a good source of fiber and vitamin C, and they offer other essential micronutrients like potassium and manganese.
Research also shows daily consumption of blueberries and strawberries, which contain high levels of antioxidants, may be linked to positive effects, like improving inflammation, insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and cognitive health.
Whether you opt for fresh, frozen or dried, berries offer an easy way to add pops of sweetness to meals and snacks. Try mixing them into your pancake batter or oatmeal at breakfast, including them in salads at lunch or dinner, or pairing them with nuts and chocolate for a balanced, tasty snack.
Potatoes are nutrient powerhouses — they can pack up to 4 grams of plant-based protein, nearly 5 grams of fiber and 25% of the potassium you need for the day. If you are wondering whether you should eat sweet or white potatoes, the answer is to eat the potatoes you prefer.
“Lots of people think white potatoes are unhealthy or don’t contain any nutrients, but they’re actually rich in the antioxidant vitamin C, potassium, and contains a nice dose of fiber,” says Hartley.
Certain preparation methods are healthier than others (grilled vs. fried, for example), but all potatoes can fit into a balanced intake.
Within the carb category, bread may get the worst rap in diet culture. From fearmongering messages about it being unhealthy to influencers suggesting bell peppers instead for your sandwich, misinformation is everywhere.
In fact, including bread in your intake regularly is an easy way to meet your carb needs and benefit from other essential nutrients. All breads contain varying amounts of fiber and micronutrients like calcium and magnesium, and can be a part of a balanced diet. Whole grain versions (whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel, etc.) offer more nutrients than their refined, white counterparts.
“For athletes and other active people I work with, having refined grains before a sports event is a great choice for providing a quick source of easily digestible energy,” explains Hartley. Or, if you have a stomach bug, a piece of white bread is likely to be more tolerable and settling than a harder-to-digest slice of whole wheat or rye.
Contrary to another diet culture rule (that you should only eat whole grain bread to be healthy), if you prefer white bread over whole wheat bread, white bread is your healthiest choice.“While foods like whole grains, beans and potatoes, are nutrient-rich, it’s not healthy to force yourself to eat a food you don’t like,” says Hartley. “If eating food causes you stress, even if it’s packed with nutrition, it’s not actually healthy for you.”
With a texture and shape somewhere between couscous and rice, farro is a highly nutritious and nutty-tasting complex carb source, a.k.a. an ancient grain.
Like most grains, farro is a good source of fiber, offering about 5 grams per serving (1/4 cup dry or ½ cup cooked), or 18% of the recommended daily value (DV). Unlike most grains, it provides plant-based protein, offering about 6 grams per serving.
Farro also provides micronutrients like non-heme iron (the type of iron found in plant-based sources) — 2 mg or 10% of the DV — per serving. You can try farro as a carb source in a burrito bowl, tossed in a salad or as a side with fish and veggies.
As a member of the squash family, pumpkin is a starchy nutrient-dense veggie. Other than offering complex carbohydrates, pumpkin offers the antioxidant beta-carotene, an important antioxidant for your vision and skin.
One cup of plain pumpkin purée also provides essential nutrients like fiber, vitamin A, potassium and non-heme iron.
Try mixing ½ cup into plain, Greek yogurt (with cinnamon, nutmeg and a drizzle of honey) for a protein-rich snack and enjoy it this holiday season in pumpkin pie.
Like common misconceptions about potatoes, there are similar ones regarding rice. While brown rice is more nutrient-dense than white rice, white rice still offers health benefits.
“While I love the nutty flavor of brown rice in many dishes, white rice is a favorite and a staple food in many cultures,” explains Hartley. “White rice is inexpensive, easy on the digestive system, fortified with vitamins and minerals and only has one less gram of fiber than brown rice.”
On that note, more nutrient-dense carbs like brown rice and whole wheat pasta contain slightly more fiber than their refined counterparts like white rice and pasta. Fiber can help keep you full and satisfied, but it’s important to stay hydrated while increasing fiber intake slowly and gradually to let your body adjust.
“’Eat more fiber’ is a frequent recommendation for people with IBS and other gastrointestinal issues, and certainly can be helpful advice,” explains Hartley. “But for many people eating lots of fiber from whole grains can actually contribute to constipation, bloating and other symptoms. For them, choosing refined grains like white bread, white rice and white pasta, may be more comfortable.”Just like potatoes, your decision of which rice to include should be based on what you enjoy the most (and that may change depending on your mood and what else you are eating).
Dates are sweet, dried fruits and carb sources with essential nutrients, including fiber and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Just two Medjool dates provide 3.2 grams of fiber, which is about 12% of DV. Like oats, dates contain soluble fiber, which helps to lower LDL cholesterol. They also contain insoluble fiber which helps keep the digestive system running smoothly.
Dates offer important micronutrients like calcium, B vitamins, non-heme iron, potassium, copper and magnesium. Enjoy them chopped up in salads or rice dishes, or as a satisfying snack filled with nut butter.
Along with other sources of dairy, yogurt is a carb choice that provides lactose, a naturally occurring sugar. While there are yogurts higher in protein than others (like Greek yogurt), all yogurts offer important nutrients aside from carbs.
Yogurt is a good source of bone-protecting calcium and vitamin D, and gut-balancing probiotics. One thing you’ll want to be mindful of is sugar in yogurt. You should try to opt for Greek yogurts, which are naturally lower in sugar and higher in protein than regular yogurt.
Similar to our other carb picks, the best rule of thumb to follow when choosing yogurt is to go with what you like most. Have it as a little snack alone, or try yogurt in sweet-but-tart breakfasts like smoothies and parfaits, or in savory fare like dips and condiments.
Weirdly, diet culture messaging about bananas being unhealthy for you (or that you should only eat half at a time) has cropped up. Yet bananas are a fabulous simple carb source with natural sugars, filled with potassium and magnesium, and supply plant-based prebiotic compounds that help “feed” your good bacteria.
Enjoy a banana (yes, you can eat a whole banana!) before a work-out for some quick, easily digestible energy, include it in a dessert (banana split, anyone?), in a sandwich with nut butter and honey at lunch, as an afternoon snack with a spoonful of nut butter, or slice it into your morning yogurt bowl.
What is the healthiest carb to eat?
Say it with us: Eating “healthy carbs” includes eating all types of carbs! And, Hartley says her key carb-related recommendation is to eat enough of them, meaning including them regularly at meals and snacks. Otherwise, going a long period of time without carbs leads to blood sugar instability. “Also, carbs are our brain’s main source of fuel, so eating carbs consistently can be helpful for mood, and maintaining energy and focus,” she says.
So, eat the more nutritious carbs you enjoy instead of forcing yourself to eat foods you don’t like, and trust you will get a balance of nutrients with a varied intake of carb sources.
“Maybe you hate whole grain pasta and brown rice, but love sweet and white potatoes and oatmeal,” Hartley says, “That’s OK! You can eat still eat white pasta and rice, and get fiber from other sources.”
Food is fuel and nourishment, yes, and it is so much more – food, and food traditions and experiences can be one way to nourish ourselves emotionally. Oftentimes, carb-rich “fun” foods (or what diet culture calls “unhealthy carbs”) are significant parts of emotional eating experiences, whether it be enjoying warm apple pie and ice cream with a friend, celebrating a birthday with pizza and chocolate cake, or enjoying a family meal of lasagna and garlic bread. Having a healthy relationship to food includes giving yourself permission to include all types of carbs, and enjoy joyful, adventurous and/or sentimental eating experiences.
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