With low-carb and gluten free diets in vogue these days, it seems all dietary carbohydrates get lumped together into one big basket of confusion. We might wonder which carbs are healthy, which carbs to limit or why we need them at all. As the main fuel source, carbohydrates provide a steady supply of glucose that our brain, central nervous system, cells and tissue require for optimal functioning. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates provide the macronutrients the body needs for growth, metabolism, maintenance and most importantly good health. In a healthy balanced diet, carbohydrates should provide 45-65% of your daily total caloric intake, mainly in the form of vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits. Eating an excess of refined carbohydrates can lead to an increase in total calories and weight gain, but not eating enough nutrient dense carbs can lead to malnutrition.
When referring to carbohydrates, the terms simple and complex refer to the chemical structure of the food. Simple carbohydrates have one or two natural sugars. Complex carbs have 3 or more natural sugars. On a nutrition label, the words “total carbohydrates” refers to the three main types of carbohydrates in the food:
- Starches – Starches are found in plant foods including beans, whole grains and certain vegetables. These provide fiber, beneficial vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.
- Sugars – Sugar is found naturally in some foods including fruits, vegetables, dairy and natural sweeteners such as honey or maple syrup. Sugars added during processing are simple or fast acting carbohydrates.
- Fiber – Fiber is found only in plant foods including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and legumes. Fiber is beneficial for weight control, digestive health and healthy cholesterol levels.
Complex carbohydrates from unrefined whole grains and plant foods provide a wide range of nutrients and fiber and are the most beneficial for your health. While many people are cutting carbohydrates in order to lose weight, complex carbohydrates can actually help you control your weight. In fact, a diet rich in healthy carbs does not lead to weight gain or obesity. On the other hand, simple carbohydrates, obtained from processed and packaged foods, refined grains and added sugars, have been stripped of their nutritional benefits and offer little but added calories. While we can easily survive without added sugar, which can lead to weight gain, poor nutrition, tooth decay and chronic disease, it would be difficult and unhealthy to entirely eliminate carbs from our diets.
So how do you choose which carbs to eat and which to avoid? To get the most benefit from your daily carbohydrate intake, aim to get most of your carbohydrates from unrefined foods. If your goal is to become more lean, choose slow-digesting or complex carbs that provide for a steadier balanced energy production and avoid refined carbs which have simple-to-digest basic sugars. While fruits and vegetables are technically simple carbs, they contain fiber and nutrients that are digested and released slowly into the bloodstream, keeping blood sugar and insulin levels stable and hunger at bay. The carbs to avoid are those highest in sugar and lowest in fiber such as soda and sports drinks, candy, desserts, pastries and refined grains or “white” foods such as bread, pasta and rice. Instead choose whole grain (not whole wheat) bread, whole grain pasta and brown rice or other whole grains. Eat fiber-filled whole fruit and skip the processed juice, which lacks fiber and often contains added sugars. Have whole grain oatmeal in lieu of processed cereals. Read labels! Foods “fortified” with added nutrients are a clue that all the natural goodness has been stripped away in processing.
Although excessive calorie intake from any source will lead to weight gain, healthy eating doesn’t have to be about sacrifice. Choose your carbs wisely and watch portion sizes if you want to lose or maintain your weight. By limiting or avoiding added sugars and refined products and emphasizing fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, you will naturally reduce your caloric intake, improve your nutrition and digestive health, and reach a sustainable healthy weight. You also may benefit from increased energy, stronger immunity, supported brain and heart health and a reduced risk of illness and chronic health issues. A diet that includes fresh, whole foods with a variety of colors and textures not only satisfies, but nourishes the entire body, gives your skin that healthy glow and creates an overall feeling of good health.
For those whose diets may be lacking the minimum 5-a-day daily intake of fruits and vegetables, here are some great products that aid in fulfillment of nutritional needs:Deeper Greens Powder by Ortho Molecular – This high ORAC product supplies a good source of dietary fiber along with natural concentrates of mainly organically grown fruits, greens and vegetables. Deeper Greens is formulated to help fulfill daily dietary needs in a single serving. Gluten free. Earth’s Promise™ Green: Strawberry-Kiwi Flavored by Enzymatic Therapy – This delicious greens drink mix provides vital nutrients from vitamin-rich fruits, vegetables, fiber, greens, blue-green algae and green tea. Gluten and dairy free vegetarian formula. PaleoFiber Berry by Designs for Health – Ideal for increasing your overall daily fiber intake, PaleoFiber contains a combination of natural fibers derived from fruits, vegetables, roots, seeds and tree extracts along with pre- and probiotics. Gluten free, Paleolithic formula. Power Greens Premium Berry by NuMedica – This great tasting greens and superfood drink mix contains high quality ingredients selected for their nutrient-rich properties. Power Greens provides a full complement of vitamins and minerals along with high ORAC value fruits, greens, fiber, adaptogenic herbs, digestive enzymes and pre- and probiotics. Wheat, dairy and soy free.
References:Types of Carbohydrates. http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/what-can-i-eat/understanding-carbohydrates/types-of-carbohydrates.html Macronutrients: the Importance of Carbohydrate, Protein, and Fat. http://www.mckinley.illinois.edu/handouts/macronutrients.htm Do Humans Need Carbohydrates to Be Healthy? http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/humans-need-carbohydrates-healthy-6670.html The truth about carbs. http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/loseweight/pages/the-truth-about-carbs.aspx