Carbohydrates and starchy foods have been the focus of countless diet recommendations. You’ve probably heard at some point that carbs make you gain weight, make it impossible to lose fat or weight, promote inflammation, and should be avoided or limited at all costs.
The fact is, that’s not entirely true. Avoiding carbohydrates can actually be detrimental to your overall health!
Carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy.
We also use proteins and fats for energy, but important organs like our brain run on carbohydrates. If you limit carbohydrates you will likely feel sluggish, tired, and have “foggy brain”— where you just can’t think very clearly or concentrate.
Foods that contain carbohydrates often also contain other beneficial nutrients like fiber, vitamin C, B vitamins, and iron.
It is true that, if eaten in excess, ANY type of food will cause your body to store that energy as fat. Carbohydrates, especially simple carbohydrates, tend to be the foods that are easiest to overeat (like ice cream, pasta, bread, crackers/pretzels, etc.).
However, an abundance of research (like this recent study) tells us that diets containing whole grains and unprocessed complex carbohydrates have been shown to reduce inflammation and, in turn, reduce one’s risk of diabetes and heart disease.
So, what kind of carbs should we eat?
The most beneficial carbohydrates are those that provide filling fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients. These are considered “complex” carbohydrates.
You want about ¼ of your plate, or approximately 1 cup, of carbohydrate-containing foods at each meal. Choose whole grains and complex carbohydrates often to reap the most rewards from your food. Pick foods like:
- Whole grain pasta
- Beans—black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, pinto beans
- Sweet potatoes and white potatoes with the skin on
- Brown rice
- Vegetables and whole fruit
- Steel cut or old fashioned oatmeal
- Corn (even popcorn is a whole grain! Try making your own in an air-popper or on the stove)
The bottom line:
Carbohydrates can and should be included in moderation in a healthy diet.
The quality of the carbohydrate matters, so try to make at least half your grains whole grains or pick other complex/unrefined carbohydrates.
Simple sugars, added sugars, or simple/refined carbohydrates like ice cream, candy, soda, refined flour and grains, etc., are not ideal sources of carbohydrates. Check out this post learn how you can avoid added sugar.
Meghan Perkins is Project Angel Heart’s registered dietitian. After a semester studying baking and pastry arts at culinary school, Meghan quickly found her passion for clinical nutrition and transferred to the University of Northern Colorado to earn her bachelor’s degree in dietetics. Meghan has worked in clinical and private practice settings, educating patients about how their food choices impact their health with an emphasis on CKD, diabetes, heart disease, celiac disease, and weight management. In her free time, Meghan enjoys exploring Denver by bike with her husband, trying new coffee and tea shops, hiking in Crested Butte, and relaxing with her dog Barney.