If you’ve been around Carb Manager for a while, you probably already know that we are particularly fond of the ultra-low-carb Keto diet.
But that doesn’t mean that we are anti-carb around here — far from it, actually. Carbohydrates can absolutely be a healthy part of many diets, as long as you understand how to choose the right ones.
Here’s a quick guide to healthy carbs.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are the three macronutrients. They are the main dietary components that provide calories (alcohol provides calories also, but it’s not considered a macronutrient.) Each macronutrient also has multiple specialized roles.
Most carbs in a typical diet come from grains, starches, and sugar — like flour, bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, and corn. Most dietary sugar comes from added sugars in processed foods and drinks like soda, pastries, and sauces. You can also find naturally-occurring carbs and sugars in lesser amounts in other vegetables, dairy products, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes/pulses.
Carbohydrates have a molecular structure consisting of chains of individual sugar units known as monosaccharides. Fructose is a monosaccharide uniquely found in plant foods, while galactose is found in dairy foods. Glucose is present in all carbohydrates.[*]
Because all carbs are made from sugars, they all break down into sugar — even if they don’t taste sweet. To test this for yourself, hold a bite of saltine cracker in your mouth for several minutes. Eventually, you will begin to detect a sweet taste. This is because the enzymes in your saliva have started breaking down the long chains of sugar into individual sugar units.
What Do Carbohydrates Do?
Carbohydrates have two primary functions in the diet: they provide energy and fiber.[*]
Carbohydrates break down fairly quickly into glucose, the sugar that the body uses for energy. Therefore, carbs are a primary fuel source for most people. Carbs also replenish glycogen stores, which serve as a reserve pool of glucose in the muscles and liver that the body can call on when needed.
Carbohydrates also provide fiber, which is indigestible but can help regulate your digestion and provide a food source for your healthy gut bacteria. Even on Keto, you can still get plenty of fiber from low-carb fruits and vegetables like coconut, avocado, zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower.
Why Carbs Have a Bad Reputation
Carbohydrates have attained a pretty terrible reputation over the past few years, especially as lower carb diets like Keto and Paleo have grown in popularity. Here are several reasons why carbs have taken the place of fats as “the villain” in our diets:
- Processing. Most highly processed foods are high in carbs and include sugar, flour, or corn as key ingredients. These ultra-processed foods have been linked to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and several other chronic health issues.[*][*]
- Blood sugar effects. By design, carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels. In nature, carbs are bound with fiber — which helps to blunt their blood sugar effect. However, highly processed carbs can rapidly spike your blood sugar levels. With time and overconsumption, this may lead to insulin resistance, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.[*][*]
- Addictive nature. It can be challenging to regulate your carb intake, especially with highly processed carbs. (Think potato chips… can you eat just one?) Most people with food addiction struggle almost exclusively with carbohydrate-rich foods, and processed carbs appear to affect your hunger hormones in ways that result in more food cravings and increased appetite.[*][*]
However, just because many carbs possess these qualities doesn’t mean that all carbs are bad for all people. We can use this list, though, to identify the unhealthiest carbs. Whether you’re eating a low carb, moderate carb, or high carb diet, here are the top 5 carbs to avoid.
Top Carbs to Avoid
- Refined flour. Typically found in bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, gravies, cereals, crackers, and more, however, you can find alternatives to many of these made with unrefined flours for a healthier option.
- Sugar-sweetened beverages. This includes soda and fruit juice. These drinks don’t fill you up, yet are loaded with sugar and calories.
- Fried potatoes. Examples include French fries and potato chips. These foods are high in carbs, often fried in low-quality oils, and difficult to stop eating.
- Processed cakes, cookies, and pastries. These typically contain sugar, refined flour, and low-quality oils.
- Breakfast cereal. Like processed desserts, these are often made with refined flour and added sugar. These highly processed carbs aren’t the best way to start your day.
What Are Healthy Carbs?
Although the debate about carbs rages on, most experts agree on what does make a carb healthy. Healthy carbs are minimally processed, rich in fiber, and full of nutrients.
Processing carbohydrates often removes some of the healthiest components of the food, like the fiber and nutrients. For example, refined white flour is devoid of fiber and so stripped of nutrients that — at least in the United States — it has to be added back in after processing. Processed carbohydrates often contain other ingredients that may be unhealthy too, like low-quality oils, added sugars, or lab-made additives.[*]
Therefore, the best carbs are minimally processed. Think potatoes, rice, quinoa, oats, fresh or frozen fruit, and full-fat yogurt.
These minimally processed carbs are naturally rich in fiber except for dairy products (because fiber is from plants). Likewise, they are full of nutrients and antioxidants because there hasn’t been a high degree of processing to remove these compounds.
Top Healthy Whole Food Carbs
Ready to embrace carbs? Here are our top 13 favorite whole food carbs for those on higher-carb or carb-flexible diets.
Potatoes and Sweet Potatoes
While fast food French fries and store bought potato chips aren’t the healthiest choices, potatoes are actually full of nutrients and fiber. Some research shows that potatoes are more filling than other types of carbs too, like pasta or bread.[*]
Roots, Tubers, and Rhizomes
Vegetables that grow underground can be classified as roots, tubers, or rhizomes. There are many of these in addition to potatoes and sweet potatoes, and they vary in carb content. However, they all tend to be high in fiber and rich in nutrients. Some of our favorites include cassava, turnips, rutabagas, beets, carrots, jicama, and parsnips.
Even if you’ve never cooked with plantain, you’ve probably seen it in the store before. Plantains look like oversized green bananas and have a tangy taste that makes them a great addition to savory meals. They are a staple food in parts of Central and South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and India.[*]
Oats contain the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which offers a number of health benefits — but don’t reach for the instant packets. Instead, old-fashioned oats or steel cut can be made in advance to add to your breakfasts throughout the week.
Quinoa is a gluten-free seed that can be used in place of rice. It contains a little more protein than most other grains, so it may help keep you fuller.
Full Fat Yogurt
Full-fat yogurt contains a good ratio of protein, fat, and carbs, along with healthy probiotic bacteria. Opt for a plain version and sweeten it yourself with a little bit of fruit and your preferred sweetener instead of buying the sugary flavored versions at the grocery store.
Rice is a staple food in many cultures and — as far as grain foods go — fairly easy to digest for most people. Brown rice is higher in fiber, but white rice is lower in antinutrient phytic acid. For this reason, many people on Paleo or similar diets prefer white to brown rice - if they choose to include it.[*]
Despite the name, winter squashes like butternut, acorn, and spaghetti squash don’t actually grow in the winter. Their thick rind allows them to be stored through the winter, though, and they are full of fiber and vitamins.
Berries like strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are low in sugar and full of antioxidants. These fruits can be incorporated into most diets, including Keto.
Although honey should be used sparingly because it affects your body similarly to table sugar, it may be a good option if you’re looking for a natural sweetener for tea or Greek yogurt. Honey may also have antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties.[*]
Buckwheat is a gluten-free grain that’s often used to make gluten-free breads and quickbreads, like pancakes and waffles. It has a unique nutty flavor and can mimic the texture of wheat fairly closely.
Popcorn is one of the healthiest carbs to snack on, especially if you make it yourself. It’s so low in calories that a standard serving size of 4 cups contains just 125 calories. Toss your popcorn with coconut oil or real butter and your favorite seasonings to keep it on the healthier side.
Chickpeas, or Garbanzo beans, are protein-and fiber-rich legumes that can be used in hummus, falafel, curries, and more. Chickpea flour is also a high-protein, gluten-free alternative to regular flour that bakes well.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat?
How many carbs you should consume depends on a number of factors — mainly your activity level, health goals, and personal preferences.
Highly active people tend to do better with a higher carbohydrate intake. (However, ketogenic diets for athletes are being studied intensely right now.[*][*]) This higher level of carb intake keeps your glycogen stores topped off, so you always have that reserve of energy available to help you push through workouts.
You should also consider your health goals. If you have a lot of weight to lose or have type 2 diabetes, limiting your carb intake may help improve your insulin resistance. Entering ketosis using intermittent fasting and/or a Keto diet may also help reduce your appetite, calorie intake, and carb cravings. However, if you don’t need to lose weight or aren’t insulin resistant, you can probably include more carbs in your diet while still easily meeting your health goals.[*]
Finally, it’s also essential to consider your personal preferences. It’s important to break your dependence on highly processed carbs and sugars regardless of your health goals or diet preferences. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to adopt a full Keto diet — unless you want to.
How to Incorporate Healthy Carbs Into Your Diet
Ready to reintroduce some healthy carbs? Here’s how to do it.
- Have a plan. Plan out your carbohydrate servings daily so you have a rough idea of what you’ll eat and when. This can help you set parameters to avoid overeating or choosing unhealthy carbs.
- Stick to a predetermined portion. Even minimally processed carbs (like rice) are really easy to overeat, so determine how much you’re going to consume beforehand and then stick to it. If you want a little bit more food after having one serving, have some more protein or non-starchy vegetables rather than a second helping of carbs.
- Balance your carbs with fat, fiber, and protein. Whether it’s a meal or a snack, balancing the carbs you eat with fat and protein can help prevent your blood sugar from spiking. If you’re making macaroni and cheese, add some shredded chicken and vegetables. And if you’re having a handful of crackers as a snack, pair them with mashed avocado and a hard-boiled egg.
- Limit unhealthy carbs. Although an occasional treat is fine, sticking to mostly healthy carb choices as you reintroduce carbs is the best way to ensure that you don’t slip into unhealthy habits when it comes to carb intake.
- Don’t panic. If you’ve been strictly Keto for a while, you may notice that your weight goes up a couple of pounds after you reintroduce carbs. This doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to regain all of the weight you lost, don’t worry. Glycogen, the storage form of glucose, is stored in your muscles with water — so with a higher carb intake, you’re going to hold on to a tad more water weight.[*]
Ready to Get Started?
Try these healthy, wholesome, higher-carb recipes:
- Moderate Carb Plantain Pancakes
- Moderate Carb Olive Oil Baked Cod Sweet Potatoes and Asparagus
- Moderate Carb Beet Hummus
- Paleo Middle Eastern Zaatar Man’oushe
- Best Paleo Air Fryer Sweet Potato Fries
And remember, almost any diet you choose can be healthy — as long as it primarily contains whole, minimally processed foods.
So whether you’re eating low carb, high carb, or somewhere in the middle, Carb Manager can help you make sure you’re getting the right carbs with our recipes, meal planning tools, and comprehensive food database.