You’ve probably heard that carbs are bad. But are all carbs bad? Learn which foods are considered healthy carbs so that you can enjoy them without guilt.
Most of us have a love/hate relationship with carbs.
For the last few decades, carbs and fats have gone back and forth with one another as we determine which one should be eliminated from the American diet. In the 1980s and 90s, we deemed fat to be the enemy, as low-fat diets were rising in the wake of higher obesity levels. As of recent years, it seems high fat/low-carb diets are now the new normal.
But going low carb is hardly a new fade, it just ebbs and flows like any popular diet. From the Atkins diet in the 1960s to the keto diet that’s become increasingly popular in recent years, carbs have had a bad reputation for quite some time.
But, are carbs really that evil?
Actually, no. Carbs are the main fuel source for our bodies and necessary for bodily functions. What it comes down to is your source of carbohydrates.
Just as with fat and protein, there are healthy and unhealthy sources of carbohydrates. The trouble starts when our central intake of carbs is from unhealthy sources like white bread, cookies, chips, etc.
Once you understand how carbs work and begin fueling yourself with healthy carbs, you will no longer wonder whether you should eat them or not.
Carbs Are Both Simple and Complex
There are two types of carbohydrates – simple and complex.
Simple carbs are found in foods like donuts, cakes, sugar, soda, and most pre-packaged convenience foods. Complex carbs are your whole foods such as sweet potatoes, broccoli, whole grain bread, brown rice, and kale.
While simple carbs do provide quick bursts of energy, they also ultimately lead to a sugar crash later. On the contrary, complex carbs provide extended energy that stably fuels the body.
Here’s a funny story for you. When I was a kid, my mother worked at the bank. I remember going to visit her just so that I could snack on the bottomless bowl of sugar cubes that lurked in the break room.
I was a sugar addict, plain and simple. Those sugar cubes were a huge source of joy.
In high school, my after-school snack always consisted of my favorite restaurant’s potato wedges drowned in ketchup, followed by the packets of plain sugar. As you can imagine, I experienced a lot of sugar crashes when I was younger.
The trouble with sugar crashes is that they leave you craving the very thing that caused the crash. So what happens as a result of a sugar crash? We typically end up eating more simple carbs, such as sugary cereal, cookies, etc. Talk about your vicious cycle.
As with anything, moderation of simple carbs is critical. You can still enjoy a doughnut from your favorite local bakery or occasionally indulge in breadsticks at your favorite Italian restaurant. The keyword is occasionally. Let them be special treats from time to time. The majority of the time, you should try and get your carbs from whole foods.
Benefits of Carbohydrates
Despite what many carb critics might say, carbs do provide many benefits to your body.
Perhaps most importantly, carbs are the main source of energy for your cells. Carbs are made of glucose (aka simple sugar), which many cells prefer as their source of energy. Some cells, such as red blood cells, are only able to produce cellular energy from glucose.
Carbs also help preserve muscle since they spare protein, meaning our body uses carbs as an energy source instead of breaking down muscle. Carbs provide a lot of fiber as well, which promotes digestive health. Our heart also benefits from carbs, thanks to the dietary fiber, lowering your risk of stroke and heart disease.
Complex carbs also help with your mood, thanks to a nonessential amino acid known as tryptophan. The more tryptophan enters the brain, the more serotonin is synthesized by the brain resulting in an improved mood. The trouble tends to occur when other amino acids absorb into the bloodstream faster than the tryptophan, restricting the amount that makes it to the brain.
However, when you eat carbs, they tend to reduce the competition for tryptophan, so more of it can make it to the brain. Therefore, when you follow a low carb diet, not only do you feel more fatigued, but your mood can be negatively affected due to a lack of serotonin synthesis.
So, let’s take a look at some of the best sources of healthy, complex carbs that we can start integrating into our daily diet.
The Best Food Sources for Healthy, Complex Carbs
Kale is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, and one of the best sources of complex carbs you can eat.
A single serving of kale provides high amounts of Vitamins A, K, C, B6, calcium, magnesium, and much more. Kale is also low in calories, at only 33 total calories per serving.
Kale also contains known cancer-fighting compounds such as sulforaphane, which fights cancer formation at a cellular level. Indole-3-carbinol is another compound found in kale that helps battle against the development of cancer in the cells.
You can also gain weight loss benefits by eating kale. On account of the aforementioned low-calorie count and its high water content, kale is what is known as a low energy density food. Eating low energy foods has been linked to aiding in weight loss in numerous studies.
You can reap the benefits from kale in various ways, including adding it to smoothies, making a salad with it, or even making homemade kale chips! The bottom line is that adding kale to your diet not only provides you with healthy carbs but also an array of other health benefits.
Along with complex carbs, almonds provide a massive amount of nutrients. They are an excellent source of fiber, protein, healthy fats, vitamin E, manganese, and magnesium.
Because of their effect on reducing “bad” LDL cholesterol within the bloodstream, almonds can help lower overall cholesterol levels. Having lower “bad” LDL levels can result in a reduced risk of developing heart disease.
A handful of raw almonds can also reduce hunger and promote weight loss. Due to the high fiber and protein levels within almonds, you end up feeling fuller for longer.
However, when consuming almonds, remember they need to be raw, not salted, smoked, and most importantly, not chocolate covered! Also, keep your daily intake to a single serving, which is only about a handful. Eating more than that in a day can lead to a surplus in calories since almonds, like other nuts, are extremely calorie-dense.
Quinoa is an ancient grain that makes the perfect alternative to white rice or pasta. Not only is it naturally high in protein and gluten-free, but it is also one of the few foods that provide all nine essential amino acids.
Along with being an excellent source of healthy, complex carbs, quinoa also provides high amounts of fiber. Quinoa offers more fiber in a single serving than all other grains. Thanks to its soluble fiber levels, quinoa can help reduce blood sugar, lower cholesterol, and aid in weight loss.
Quinoa is also very high in antioxidants, helping fight against free radicals in the body. As a result of its free-radical neutralizing abilities, quinoa can help fight disease and reduce the signs of aging. Talk about a win-win.
Switching out traditional white potatoes for sweet potatoes can add not only complex carbs but other additional nutrients. For starters, sweet potatoes, on account of their complex carbs, will not spike blood sugar and insulin levels as white potatoes are prone to doing.
Sweet potatoes are extremely nutrient-dense. One cup of cooked sweet potatoes can provide you with high servings of vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, manganese, and much more.
Sweet potatoes also contain both soluble and insoluble fiber, making them advantageous to gut health. And because of the high levels of vitamin A in sweet potatoes, they also place a beneficial role in eye health.
Sweet potatoes also boast high levels of antioxidants, which help battle free radicals in the body and are known cancer fighters. The compound anthocyanin can help slow the growth of certain cancer cells, including those in the bladder, colon, and breast. Other studies have found that sweet potato peels also contain anti-cancer properties.
Oatmeal is a valuable source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Several studies also show that oatmeal offers many health benefits, including weight loss, lower blood sugar, and reduced risk of heart disease.
In the way of nutrients, oatmeal provides high levels of manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, iron, and zinc. It also provides the highest level of healthy fats and protein compared to other grains.
Due to its high level of soluble fiber, oatmeal can help reduce bad cholesterol as well as reduce blood sugar and insulin response. In fact, one study found that the antioxidants in oats work together with vitamin C to fight LDL cholesterol oxidation. The oxidation of LDL is a significant step that leads to the development of heart disease.
Oatmeal also aids in weight loss by helping you feel fuller for longer. Due to the soluble fiber called beta-glucan, oatmeal takes longer to leave the stomach, resulting in an extended satiety feeling.
As is the case with almonds, how you eat oatmeal is key. Adding in white sugar, brown sugar, butter, and other extras can begin to compromise the benefits of oatmeal. Try to keep your oatmeal add-ins simple, such as fresh fruit and sliced almonds, so to reap the full benefits oatmeal has to offer.
Carbs: The Good, The Simple, The Complex
So despite the best efforts of all the low-carb diets out there, the fact is our bodies need carbs to function, just as it needs protein and healthy fats. Yet, just as with protein and fats, the thing to remember with carbs is moderation, moderation, moderation.
Another mantra I like to remember when it comes to food, especially carbs, is “quality over quantity.”
Also, healthy does not need to mean boring. Just because you can’t put brown sugar in your oatmeal every morning does not mean you can’t be creative with oatmeal. The same goes for other complex carb-heavy foods. Experiment with healthy but flavorful ways to prepare sweet potatoes, quinoa, and kale.
Above all else, try to avoid any diet that is extremely restrictive of any macronutrient. As I said, fat, protein, and carbs, when coming from healthy sources, are all essential for your overall well being. Learning to eat them in moderation is always going to be key.
Anytime you are on a diet that leaves you avoiding fresh fruit or vegetables on account of avoiding carbohydrates, you are also avoiding essential vitamins and minerals. You should not be afraid of eating a banana or an apple because you think it will make you gain weight. You can maybe feel that way about Oreos but never fresh fruit.
Now, that is not to say you can’t enjoy your Oreo cookies once in a while, either. I am all about some balance. If you take away your favorite foods, including those sugary, simple carb favorites, you’ll end up resentful of your eating habits. Let yourself enjoy your favorite pastry, doughnut, or thick crust pizza once in a while as a treat, just not every day, or even every other day.
Again, eating and enjoying life is all about balance. As renowned American dietician, Ellie Krieger, once said, “In my food world, there is no fear or guilt, only joy, and balance.”
It’s about living as healthy and happy a life as you possibly can. Find your balance and find your joy.
Or put another way, eat your carbs. Enjoy your kale, your oatmeal, and your sweet potatoes and on occasion, enjoy your Oreos too.