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Healthy Carbs to Add to Your Diet

It's easy to see from television commercials, magazine spreads and internet articles why you may think carbohydrates should be blacklisted from your meals. In a time where you're used to hearing low-carb diets for this or low-carb diets for that, the truth is, your body needs carbohydrates.

But, not all carbs are created equal. The type of carbohydrates you consume is more important than the amount you consume. In other words, think quality over quantity. To help set the record straight, we're here to explain how carbohydrates work, outline which healthy carbs you can add to your diet and provide easy recipes to try at home.

Understanding simple and complex carbohydrates 

Many of the foods and drinks you consume contain carbohydrates, a macronutrient that plays a critical role in how your body functions. When you eat, the carbohydrates break down and enter your blood as glucose during the digestion process. The glucose helps fuel your body's cells to carry out everyday activities.

Carbohydrates, which consist of sugar, starch and fiber, occur naturally and are added to processed foods. When you think of carbs, your brain may picture unhealthy foods. But, you'll find carbs in fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, seeds and foods such as beans.

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate, meaning it breaks down faster in your bloodstream. That's why sugar rushes exist where you feel a short burst of energy. 

Many simple sugars, including candy, syrups and non-diet sodas, come from added or refined sugars that contain calories and little nutritional value. On labels, check the ingredient list for sucrose (table sugar), fructose (fruit sugar) or lactose (milk sugar). These are fancy chemical names for different types of sugar.

Meanwhile, starch and fiber are complex carbs that have several sugar units bonded together. Your body needs more time to break down these complex carbs; thus, the energy produced is longer lasting. You'll find complex carbs in starchy vegetables, whole grains, high-fiber fruits and dried beans.

What are healthy carbs?

This is where we can debunk the "all carbs are bad for you" myth. In short, you can classify any complex carb as a healthy carb.

Why? It goes back to how your body processes carbs. The length of time it takes your body to turn carbs into glucose is called the glycemic index. Complex carbs are low on the glycemic index, signifying a longer digestion process. Conversely, simple carbs are high on the glycemic index.

Your body's craving for carbs isn't so much about the sweet taste of a chocolate chip cookie or the satisfaction of salty french fries as it is about the need to boost your blood sugar. But, soon enough, your body runs out of fuel and needs more carbs, which is why you can feel hungry or sluggish after eating fast food or desserts.

As the name suggests, processed or refined foods are stripped of their nutrients and fiber. Complex carbs aren't refined and are full of starches and fibers your body uses for energy.

For example, bread or pasta made from whole grains take longer to digest since the grain is whole and not already separated. The longer the process takes to break down into a simple carb, the longer you'll feel full. This explains why high-fiber foods are more satisfying.

Healthy carbs to eat

You can think of complex carbs in three categories: high-fiber fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes. While you can get complex carbs from fruit and vegetable juices, you should opt for the whole version whenever possible. 

Generally, you should steer clear of a diet high in simple carbs, but avoiding them altogether isn't as easy as it sounds. You'll find lactose in milk, but that doesn't mean you should cut cereal, yogurt and other dairy products out of your diet. Enjoy them in moderation or opt for low-fat versions such as skim milk or part-skim cheeses.

Fruit contains simple sugars, but the fiber in each serving boosts the nutritional value. You may not enjoy the texture of edible fruit skins, but they're a great source of fiber. Leave your apple or pear skin on the next time you eat breakfast or fix a snack.

As for whole grains, swap your white bread, rice and pasta for products that list wheat, rye or another whole grain as the main ingredient. Making sandwiches with 100 percent whole-grain bread is a good start. If brown rice isn't for you, you can try quinoa or wild rice as a side dish. For breakfast, opt for a high-fiber cereal or a bowl of steel-cut or old fashioned whole oats with yogurt or fruit.

Legumes, such as nuts, beans and lentils, carry a dual benefit of providing carbs and protein. They also contain several nutrients, such as potassium and iron. Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are versatile enough for you to feature in an entree or serve as a side dish.

Some snacks can be good for you, too. Popcorn is a complex carb and has health benefits when eaten without added butter or salt. The kernels come from corn, the same type you eat off the cob or buy frozen or in a can. Viewed as a starchy vegetable when eaten whole, corn is actually a grain.

Quick and easy healthy carb recipes

Switching to a diet full of healthy carbs — and avoiding simple sugars and refined carbs — may seem boring, but it doesn't have to be. You can still eat well by simply making a few modifications. Here are some quick and easy recipes that incorporate healthy carbs such as chickpeas, oats, black beans and whole wheat tortillas.

 

Black Bean Quesadillas (click here to download the pdf)

 

Chickpea Salad (click here to download the pdf)

 

Easy Overnight Oats (click here to download the pdf)

 

How many carbs per day is healthy?

Healthy carbs should fill up anywhere from one-half to two-thirds of your breakfast, lunch or dinner plates. This diagram from the Healthy Eating Plate shows vegetables and whole grains should account for most of your meal. This means load up on starchy vegetables, beans or lentils or a whole grain such as brown rice or quinoa, which is a seed even though it resembles rice and other grains.

Regardless of age, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends taking in carbs that amount to 45 to 65 percent of your daily caloric intake. This is further proof carbs aren't evil as long as you're putting healthy ones in your body. Everyone should consume at least 130 grams of carbs each day. That's the baseline to maintain healthy functions. 

The range of calories the DGA recommends in a day varies by age — 1,000 for children ages 1-3; 1,600 to 1,800 for teens; and anywhere from 1,600 to 2,000-plus calories for younger and older adults. For example, somewhere between 900 and 1,300 calories should come from carbs if you abide by a 2,000-calorie diet. That adds up to 225 to 325 grams. 

Sticking to these guidelines may prove to be helpful in the long run. The dietary fiber found in whole grains is often associated with a strong heart and digestive health. It can also help regulate your weight by preventing overeating and constant snacking.

According to the American Heart Association, excess amounts of simple sugars can raise triglyceride levels over time and lead to heart disease, diabetes and liver problems.

If you have further questions about carbohydrates or you're considering modifying your diet, connect with an INTEGRIS Health primary care physician to learn more about how to implement changes.

 

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