Most of us think we can tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods. The health-conscious among us may steer clear of “bad” foods and pile up on healthy and nutritious alternatives, thinking that maintaining a healthy diet is really that simple. The truth is, even with good and bad foods, there are a lot of grey areas. This is especially true when dealing with carbohydrate-rich foods, which have been highly stigmatized as being unhealthy.
Carbohydrates are derived from three primary food sources: starches, sugars, and fibers. Already, you can see why some carbs in their natural form can do more harm than good. Sugar, whether processed or in its natural form, poses a great risk to diabetes patients, increases the risk of obesity, and can cause significant spikes in blood pressure.
Nevertheless, it is a type of carb that we consume on a regular basis, be it as a sweetener found in pastries, soft drinks, and plenty of other foods we consume. Fiber-rich foods, on the other hand, aid in a number of bodily functions and are great sources of carbohydrates, so when compared to sugar as a source of carbs, they are far more nutritious.
As you can see, getting the right amount of carbs isn’t a matter of how much you eat, but what you eat, and that’s because the different sources of carbohydrates we have all come with additional nutritional effects. To help you stay smart about your carb intake, we’ve created an in-depth guide to what type of carbs are good for you, and which ones you should eat sparingly or avoid at all costs.
Green, Leafy Vegetables
Non-starchy vegetables are rich sources of fiber, and as we said earlier, fiber is one of the best sources of clean, baggage-free carbohydrates. They might not be as delectable as your favorite snack, but vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and compounds are known as phytochemicals, which are known to fight cancer and reduce the risk of diabetes. The fiber content in green leafy vegetables is great for your digestive system too. So, if you’re looking for the perfect source of fiber, stop by at the farmer’s market or grocery store and stock up on leafy kales and spinach—they come highly recommended for people trying to lose weight as well.
Potatoes, turnips, and peas are just a few examples of vegetables rich in starch but with decent fiber content as well. These are often loaded with additional nutrients too. Apart from minerals and vitamins (A, C, B, etc.), they’re rich in anti-inflammatories and antioxidants, trace elements like manganese, copper, and potassium, folate (which is great for developing fetuses) and magnesium. Green peas are the top contenders in this category and also come with two nutrients that improve eye health: zeaxanthin and lutein.
As nutritious as starchy vegetables are, they work best when used to complement meals rather than as the main dish. Be sure to keep your eye on portion sizes and try to limit your intake of starchy vegetables to when you need an additional boost of pure carbohydrate energy to get through the day.
We get a considerable amount of carbohydrates from the fruits we eat even though they’re traditionally recognized as great sources of antioxidants and vitamins. Fruits are a great source of just about every nutrient our bodies need—from minerals to vitamins to fiber—and another great source of carbohydrates. Also, when it comes to additional nutrition, fruits excel at providing us with nutrients not commonly found in other foods.
For instance, pomegranates contain ellagic acid that’s said to fight the formation of cancerous cells, blueberries have anthocyanins which protect the skin, and grapefruit has a chemical compound known as nootkatone, which is said to kill fat cells. However, fruits can also cause some harm to our bodies, and that’s because they contain natural sugar.
Sugar is sugar, whether refined or natural. Fruits contain high amounts of sugar, so it is best to consume them in moderation, especially if you suffer from a condition that sugar exacerbates. Fruit juices are the least healthy way to consume fruit, since they contain more sugar and hardly any fiber content. You’ll find that some types of fruit have low amounts of sugar and high nutritional value— such as grapefruit, tomatoes, and berries. Even so, it is advised that you consume sweet fruits in small portions at a time. Remember that the nutritional benefits of eating fruits far outweigh their carb and sugar contents, so include them in your meals at least once a day.
Quinoa, millet, sorghum, kamut, faro, spelt, teff, amaranth—the list of “ancient” grains is longer than you may think, and the majority of them serve as great sources of carbohydrates. Ancient grains are superior simply because they are not genetically modified. Genetically modified grains—or “modern” grains, as some may call them—are often less nutritious or altered to a point where our own cells don’t recognize them as food anymore. That’s the reason why ancient grains, grains that have fed humankind for thousands of years, are still grown for consumption today.
Not only are these friendlier to your internal ecosystem, but they are very potent sources of carbohydrates as well. The only downside is that some of them contain gluten; people with gluten sensitivities often steer clear of these grains for that reason. Nevertheless, there is no reason not to indulge in some quinoa or millet cake every so often because they are wholesome and very nutritious sources of carbs.
Though leguminous grains like lentils and beans are probably known for their high protein content, they do contain a decent amount of fiber which translates to good carbs. However, the reason why they’re ranked fifth in this list is that legumes contain proteins called lectins. These wreak havoc on the lining of your gut and have been known to promote some autoimmune diseases when consumed in large quantities. The other reason why this should not be your only source of carbs is that legumes contain large quantities of phytic acid, a chemical compound that reduces your body’s ability to absorb some vital nutrients including iron and calcium.
If you only eat leguminous grains occasionally, you shouldn’t have a problem unless you already suffer from an autoimmune disease. Make sure you soak leguminous grains before cooking them to reduce their lectin content.
Whole grain foods are the Holy Grail when it comes to pure, unadulterated carbohydrates, right? Wrong. Though they do contain a decent amount of fiber and have a higher nutritional value than refined grains, they’re not much better. Not only do they contain large amounts of sugar, but some of them also have gluten. The scary part is that very few foods billed to be “whole grain” are actually made from whole grains—some consist of pseudo whole grains that do more harm than good.
Whole grains should only serve as a substitute for refined grains, which are a far worse source of carbohydrates as we will see next.
Refined grains have almost no nutritional value and carry a lot of sugar. They also make the most delicious meals. Think about it, would you rather use white flour to bake a cake or would you switch to the marginally healthier whole wheat flour? Doesn’t white rice taste and smell better than whole grain rice? And would you even consider eating pasta if it wasn’t as refined as it usually is? The truth is, refined grains tastes way better despite being very unhealthy and having almost no nutritional value whatsoever.
What you’ll find in abundance in these refined grains is sugar and lots of it. Sugar may be a source of carbs, but it is not the best. Refined grains can cause inflammation, which increases the risk of suffering from diabetes or exacerbating your blood pressure, but worst of all, they are great contributors to unhealthy weight gain. It is advisable either to drastically reduce your intake of refined grains or to stop consuming them completely. Your body will thank you.
Sugar is the number one cause of obesity, weight gain, high blood pressure, metabolic imbalances, and even heart disease. It is so bad for your body that it even makes it age faster by increasing the production of glycation by-products, which rapidly age our cells and tissues. Sugar has zero fiber content as well as zero nutritional value. So, other than satisfying your sweet tooth, sugar doesn’t help your body much. It is every health expert’s recommendation that you cut down your sugar consumption considerably. Though it is a source of carbs, it comes with too much baggage for you to consume on a regular basis without causing harm to yourself in the long run.
Sugar and refined grains should be off your list of carb sources if you care about your health. They’re known culprits for a wide number of conditions including obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Go for carb sources with larger payoffs, such as leafy vegetables, which are widely available and contain loads of other useful nutrients that your body thrives on.