Choose your Carbs Wisely!
It is hard to determine the role of carbohydrates in a healthy diet these days. This “Total Carbohydrates” fact sheet posted by fda.gov is a great tool in understanding its breakdown. To summarize:
- Carbohydrates consist of sugars, sugar alcohols, starches, and dietary fiber. These different types are displayed on food labels under the total carbohydrate section. Sugars, sugar alcohols, and starches are either naturally in the food or added commercially.
- Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients in food.
- Carbs are 4 calories/gram.
- After eating carbohydrates, your body will break them down into glucose, or energy for your body.
- Fiber will help to slow the absorption rate of carbs and other nutrients, helping you to feel fuller longer.
What’s the Difference?
Whole grain carbohydrates are the preferred source of energy for the brain, and contain vitamins and fiber. Whole grain, aka “complex”, carbohydrates are those which include the entire kernel (including the outer shell). Many health benefits, such as lowered risk of cardiovascular disease and type two diabetes, are associated with eating whole grains. This is because many of the valuable nutrients, such as fiber, iron, B vitamins, and minerals, are found in the outer shell of the grain.
On the other hand, simple grains, such as those found in white bread, are grains which have had the outer shell of the grain removed. Therefore, removing most of the beneficial nutrients too. Many simple carbohydrates are fortified. This means food manufacturers have added back in some of the vitamins and minerals…but, this is still not as healthy of an option because much of the fiber and nutrition is still lacking.
Bottom line: Try your best to limit simple carbohydrates, such as white rice, white bread, or white flour. Instead, opt for whole grain rice, whole grain breads and whole wheat flours. Thanks to their fiber content, these whole grain products digest slowly, keeping blood sugar levels stable and helping you to feel more satisfied longer.
But what about fruits and vegetables?
Fruits and vegetables contain simple carbohydrates too. Some fruits and vegetables are higher in sugar (simple carbohydrates) and should be consumed in moderation (i.e. bananas, mangos, sweet potatoes, carrots). However, some fruits and vegetables have fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which help to slow down digestion and increase the nutritional profile of the food. These types of fruits and vegetables (i.e. cucumbers, asparagus, berries, avocados) act more like a complex carbohydrate which keeps blood sugar levels steady. These types of fruits and vegetables can be enjoyed more often.
Bottom line: All fruits and vegetables can and should be a part of a healthy diet. Although they are simple carbohydrates, they can be enjoyed in moderation. Fruits and vegetables with higher fiber content, such as berries and avocados, are a better choice than fruits and vegetables than containing mostly simple carbohydrates (i.e. bananas).
More about Whole Grains
Whole grains are a great way to get your carbohydrates and to increase the fiber in your diet. The USDA MyPlate recommends that about one quarter of your plate consists of grains. Of that one quarter, half of those grains should be whole grains. It is important to substitute whole grain products for simple carbohydrate products, rather than adding whole grain products in order to meet your goal.
- Choose a whole grain hot cereal (oatmeal, wheat) or a cold breakfast cereal that provides at least 5 grams of fiber per serving
- Add a high fiber cereal to yogurt
- Substitute whole wheat flour for up to half of the white flour in any
- Experiment with whole wheat pasta and brown rice
- Add any grain to your mixed meat dishes
- Try adding oatmeal to meat loaf
Know what to look for
Knowing which grains are whole grains can be confusing, but the easiest way to identify a whole grain is by its ingredient list. If it doesn’t say whole grain or whole wheat, it is not a whole grain food.
- Whole grains - A grain that still has its outer covering (the bran), which contains the grain’s fiber and many of its vitamins and minerals.
- Processed whole grains - A whole grain that has been cracked (as in cracked wheat bread) or crushed (as in whole wheat flour). They provide the same nutrients found in the original kernel of grain.
- Refined grains/ simple carbohydrates - The nutrient rich outer covering is removed during milling such as in white flour.
- Enriched/Fortified grains - Refined grains (simple carbohydrates) to which nutrients such as B vitamins and iron are added back.