Skip to main content

Identifying and Appreciating Healthy Carbohydrates

healthy carbohydrate choices

Whether you eat them with gusto or avoid them altogether, carbohydrates are the most controversial food group found in the American diet today. How we think about carbohydrates in our diet culture has undergone drastic changes over the years. Starting with the basics, carbohydrates are a major macronutrient that provide energy, help make you feel full and satisfied, control your blood glucose and insulin metabolism, promote proper elimination, and foster fermentation in your gut, which promotes normal digestion and the growth of friendly bacteria. But not all carbohydrates are created equal. We have two main types, which are:

  • Simple Carbohydrates: Think of them as small and fast to digest. These are also known as monosaccharides (containing one sugar unit) or disaccharides (containing two sugar units), which are quickly absorbed in the small intestine. Because of their simplicity and fast absorption they quickly raise the blood sugar and transmit a boost of energy.
  • Complex Carbohydrates: Includes fiber and starches, which means they contain hundreds of sugar units, and because of that they take longer to digest. In contrast with the fast digestion of simple carbohydrates, the prolonged time used in complex carbohydrate digestion helps avoid blood sugar spikes and provides a longer release of energy. Fiber, on the other hand, is not digested and is therefore not a source of energy for us. However, dietary fiber in both forms (soluble and insoluble) has other health benefits such as promoting gut motility and providing energy to the intestinal bacteria able to digest it.

Studies now reveal that it’s the type of carbohydrate eaten that may be most important for optimal health. A diet focusing only on refined carbohydrates (also known as simple) such as white bread, sugary beverages, snack foods and such has been linked with health problems, while diets high in minimally-processed complex carbohydrate sources, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes, have been linked with a lower risk of certain diseases.

Carbohydrates to increase in your diet:

• Whole-grains (including ancient grains such as amaranth and farro to more modern choices like millet, buckwheat, barley, brown rice, sprouted bread, whole-wheat bread)

• Quinoa

• Lentils

• Beans

• Whole fruits

• Starchy vegetables (squash, sweet potatoes, whole corn)

Remember that the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that 45 to 65 percent of calories should be from carbohydrates. To achieve a good outcome, avoid highly processed food with added sugars, such as baked goods, candies, and sugary beverages. Read food labels carefully to determine whether grains are refined and if sugars are added. Try to include legumes on your menu at least a 3-4 times per week.

If you would like to find out more specific recommendations for carbohydrate consumption, I suggest meeting with a Registered Dietitian to help you create a personalized diet that is appropriate for your lifestyle.