Yes, You CAN Eat Carbs and Be Healthy—Here’s Why
Stop running away from carbohydrates and embrace these nutritionist-approved healthy carbs, including bread, rice and more.
Remember, carbs aren’t all bad
Carbs are not the enemy, despite what you’ve read. There’s a difference between quality carbohydrates that provide fiber and nutrients and empty carbs which are high in sugar, low in nutrition. “Higher carb foods are maligned because people tend to be short-sighted when evaluating these foods,” explains Lisa Cohn, a registered dietitian. “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 foods affect blood sugar,” says Hagar. “Elevated or abnormal spikes in blood sugar may lead to diabetes so people who are at risk may be told to limit these foods. However, healthy people should not be afraid of these foods.”
Bananas may be high in carbs and sugar, but don’t ban them from your fruit bowl.“Fruits are a vital source of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and fibers,” 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.
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 much more than a 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.
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. Here are our favorite ways to cook flavorful brown rice.
Pasta is actually pretty low-calorie and low-fat—one cup of cooked spaghetti has approximately 220 calories and 1 gram of fat. 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.
Just like rice and pasta, there are good and bad versions of breakfast cereal. It’s a quick, easy and inexpensive breakfast or snack option, so let’s not take it off the table altogether. A healthy 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,” reveals Warren. “Although it is one of the most confusing food purchases at the supermarket, there can be great options including sprouted whole grain bread. Sprouted grains lower the glycemic index and provide a great source of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin C, folate and essential amino acids.” Another healthy bread is sourdough, which introduces beneficial bacteria—probiotics—to help balance healthy populations of gut bacteria, lower the body’s insulin response and help you digest more nutrients.
Peas may be higher in carbs and sugar than non-starchy vegetables, but they have enormous nutritional value. In particular, peas are a great source of phytonutrients with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, 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. If you still need persuading, peas have a low glycemic index ranking, meaning they’re good for a consistent, steady energy release. Add peas back into your diet with these 29 easy recipes.
“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 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.” Check out these 40 fun ways to dress up yogurt.
Winter squash such as butternut and spaghetti are often flagged by carb avoiders, but that’s a mistake. In fact, cancer-fighting foods can be a regular part of your meal planning: They’re great sources of fiber, vitamin C and carotenoids. According to the National Eye Institute, studies have suggested that people with a diet rich in carotenoids are less likely to develop advanced age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Don’t get stuck in a recipe rut and try these 100 ways to eat winter squash.
“Popcorn is a great whole food option with 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.” Popcorn is also a good source of fiber and vitamin C. If popcorn’s not your thing, go with one of these tasty fresh sweet corn recipes.