Yes, You CAN Eat Carbs and Be Healthy—Here’s Why
Increase your carb intake with these nutritionist-approved healthy carbs that can give your health a boost.
Remember, carbs are good for you
Are carbs good for you? If you’re shaking your head no, you’re falling for the biggest weight loss myth out there, and it needs to be addressed: Carbs are not the enemy. Complex carbohydrates provide fiber and nutrients while refined carbohydrates can be high in sugar and comparatively low in nutrition, but there are no “good” or “bad” foods. “Higher carbohydrate foods are maligned because people tend to use short-sighted ways of evaluating these foods and are often evaluated by individuals who are uninformed or not professionally licensed,” explains Lisa Cohn, registered dietitian and consultant for miVIP Surgery Centers. “These trends are often based on misinformation and recommendations made that aim to sell products.”
Nutritionist Meg Hagar, MS, RD, believes recent findings may be to blame for carb fear: “One reason certain types of carbohydrates get a bad rep may be because of the glycemic index, a measurement of how certain foods affect our blood sugar after we consume them,” says Hagar. “Consistently elevated or abnormal spikes in blood sugar may eventually lead to [type 2] diabetes and are linked with other metabolic disorders (metabolic syndrome, inability to manage body weight, etc.) and therefore people who are at risk may be told to avoid or limit these foods. However, healthy people not at risk should not be afraid of these foods. Eating a variety of foods is one of the best ways to avoid nutrient deficiencies and achieve optimal health.”
Bananas contain carbs and natural sugar, and are a great source of vitamin B6, manganese, potassium, and fiber. “Fruits are a vital source of phytonutrients and antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibers and varying amounts of sugars,” says Cohn. “Plantains, grapes, pineapple, and bananas tend to be higher in sugars relative to portion size and thus can get a bad reputation, but still contain many important nutrients.” The low sodium and high potassium content of bananas makes them perfect for people with high blood pressure, and might even help you sleep. They contain tryptophan, which the body converts into serotonin, a brain chemical that helps you relax, improves your mood, and makes you fall asleep more easily.
Ah, the humble potato—banned from so many diets because… well, who knows? First, remember that potatoes run the gamut from Russet to red. “I often ask people what they have against the poor potato,” says Beth Warren, RDN, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life with Real Food. “It has gotten such a bad rap, but it provides so much more than a simple slice of white bread. One potato provides 15 percent of your fiber needs and 25 percent of your vitamin C and B6 needs per day.” To make white potatoes healthier, eat them with the skin on to add even more fiber (and limit less healthy accompaniments like butter and cream).
Sure, white rice isn’t the healthiest option, but not all rice is created equal. Before white rice went through the refining process, it looked exactly like brown rice, with the side hull and bran that provide “natural wholeness” to the grain. Brown rice is rich in proteins, thiamine, calcium, magnesium, fiber, and potassium. That’s all good stuff. Also, it has a low glycemic rating, which means the carbs it provides enter the bloodstream slowly, reducing insulin spikes. It can be a great option for people who have diabetes, or are trying to lose weight. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend replacing refined grains (e.g. white rice) with whole grains (e.g. brown rice). The recommended daily allowance of whole grains is a minimum of three ounces of whole grains for women and four ounces for men—the equivalent of consuming 1.5 to 2 cups of brown rice each day.
Drumroll, please… pasta is back. It’s low calorie, low fat—one cup of cooked spaghetti has approximately 220 calories and 1 gram of fat. (And yes, it contains gluten but unless you have a diagnosed sensitivity, going gluten-free can be bad for your heart.) Most pastas on the market are enriched with iron, too, but the healthiest choice is whole-grain pasta. It contains about the same calories as regular pasta but has more protein, fiber, and vitamins.
An added bonus is that all the protein and fiber fills you up faster, meaning you’ll be less likely to overeat. The American Heart Association recommends sticking to six servings of grains per day based on a 1600 calorie diet. One serving is half a cup of cooked pasta, and at least half of your daily servings should be whole grains.
Just like rice and pasta (yes, there’s a trend here), there are different types of breakfast cereal. It’s such a quick, easy, inexpensive breakfast or snack option, don’t take it off the table altogether. With so much choice out there, it’s not difficult to find healthier options amongst all the sugar-laden, marshmallow-filled varieties. A healthier choice is a bowl of whole-grain cereal—just check the ingredient list: It should be short and start with a whole grain. Look for at least three grams of fiber and no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving. To make it even healthier, add a tablespoon of nuts, seeds, or some Greek yogurt for extra protein.
“People are often afraid to eat any bread,” says Warren. “Although it is one of the most confusing food purchases at the supermarket, typically bearing highly processed ingredients that have no place in bread including high fructose corn syrup, there can be great options including sprouted whole grain bread. Sprouted grains lower the glycemic index of the bread and provide a great source of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin C, folate and essential amino acids.”
Another healthy bread is sourdough, which requires fermentation. That introduces beneficial bacteria—probiotics—which help balance healthy populations of gut bacteria, lower the body’s insulin response, and help you digest more nutrients. Sourdough is one of several foods that actually encourage calorie burn.
Peas may be higher in carbs and natural sugar than non-starchy vegetables, however, they have enormous nutritional value. In particular, peas are a great source of phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, such as coumestrol, which has been shown to potentially protect against stomach cancer.
A cup of cooked green peas also contains over 7 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein. Peas have a low glycemic index ranking, meaning they’re good for a consistent, steady energy release. Botanically speaking, green peas are not vegetables, but part of the legume family, which consists of plants that produce pods with seeds inside. Other legumes are lentils, chickpeas and beans—all examples of healthy carbs we should be eating more of, says Hagar.
You may be surprised to hear that you can add yogurt to your healthy carbs list. “I’ve had clients come to me saying they’ve been told to avoid yogurt,” says Hagar, and she can understand why. The flavored kinds are often packed with added sugars, meaning they can be high in simple carbs. However, Hager recommends plain Greek yogurt as a healthy alternative. “Plain Greek yogurt (especially one with probiotics) should be included in a healthy diet because it’s a great source of protein and calcium,” she says. “Even better, probiotics help boost immunity and promote a beneficial gut flora that can prevent digestive issues.” Did you know you can cook with Greek yogurt? Here are seven delicious savory recipes to try.
Winter squash such as butternut and spaghetti are often flagged by carb avoiders, but that’s a mistake. In fact, these cancer-fighting foods can be a regular part of your meal planning: They’re great sources of fiber, vitamin C and carotenoids. (And in any case, they actually have fewer calories and carbs per serving than standard pasta, notes Warren.) According to the National Eye Institute, studies have suggested that people with a diet rich in carotenoids (specifically lutein and zeaxanthin) are less likely to develop advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Yes, it’s the old “carrots help you see in the dark” story.
If you’re eliminating corn from your diet, you’re missing out—and that includes popcorn. “Popcorn is a great whole food option providing only 30 calories and at least 1 gram of protein per cup,” says Warren. “The serving size of popcorn is a nice amount, because one to three cups is considered a serving of whole grain, versus pretzels, for example, which have no fiber.” Corn is also a good source of fiber, vitamin C, and those healthy vision-antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin. If popcorn’s not your thing, grill corn on the cob.
- Lisa Cohn, registered dietitian and consultant for miVIP Surgery Centers
- Meg Hagar, MS, RD, nutritionist
- Beth Warren, RDN, founder of Beth Warren Nutrition and author of Living a Real Life with Real Food
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines”
- American Heart Association: “Suggested Servings from Each Food Group”
- International Journal of Cancer: “Dietary intake of polyphenols, nitrate and nitrite and gastric cancer risk in Mexico City”
- National Eye Institute: “For the Public: What the AREDS Means for You”