Carbohydrates sometimes get a bad rap. But the truth is, they’re an important part of a healthy diet and have heaps of benefits. At Yes Health we’re not into labeling food as “good” or “bad.” But we will say, all carbs are definitely not created equal.
Here’s a quick carb crib sheet to tell you what you need to know.
There are three main types of carbohydrates: sugar, starch and fiber. Sugar is the simplest form and occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy. Starch and fiber are both complex carbohydrates and can be found in vegetables, whole grains and cooked dry beans and peas. As a general rule, the more a food looks like it did before it was harvested, the more nutrients it has. Grains are better for us when eaten whole (i.e. steel cut vs rolled oats, brown vs white rice, polenta vs corn bread). Once a grain is ground into flour, it’s surface area increases and it becomes easier to digest. This might initially sound like a good thing, but the faster we digest a food, the quicker its starch is converted into sugar. The more we have to chew a grain, or if you we see pieces of grain in our food, the less likely it is to cause a sugar spike.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source. For example, the human brain depends exclusively on carbohydrates for energy. Complex carbohydrates carry important vitamins and minerals our bodies need to complete essential functions. Without these carrier carbohydrates we wouldn’t be able to produce energy, digest our food or fight off colds and flu. Researchers also link carbs to the production of serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical. In a study from the Archives of Internal Medicine, people who followed a very low carbohydrate diet for a year—which allowed only 20 to 40 grams of carbs daily, about the amount in just 1⁄2 cup of rice plus one piece of bread—experienced more depression, anxiety and anger than those assigned to a higher-carb diet that incorporated a healthy amount of whole grains, fruit and beans.
This varies from person to person, but the Healthy Plate model provides some good guidelines: 1/2 your plate should be vegetables, 1/4 of your plate should be lean protein and 1/4 of your plate should be a starchy vegetable or whole grain. We really like how thekitchn.com illustrates what an ideal daily servings of fruits and veggies looks like. Check it out here. As a bonus, eating the recommended daily amount of complex carbs can keep us feeling full longer, and help us maintain a healthy weight.
There’s been a lot of hype around no-carb diets. The general rule among the Yes Health coaches is one of moderation. When diets completely reject a major macronutrient in lieu of more specialized (and often more expensive food products) we get a little suspicious. (Fat was demonized in the 90s. Now carbs are on the hit list.) A reduction in carbs beyond what is recommended in the Healthy Plate Model may be helpful for people who need to carefully monitor their blood sugar levels, especially people with Type 2 diabetes. Also, sticking to complex carb options rather than processed carbs will help curb sugar spikes and cravings.