Not all carbohydrate-rich foods are created equal. Here’s how to identify healthy carbs and add get more of them
If you’ve heard that carbs are “bad” for you, think again. Carbohydrate-rich foods are the foundation of a healthy diet—but some are more healthy than others. “High-quality carbs have essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients in a natural ‘package’ that limits fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin that contribute, at least in part, to chronic illness and overeating,” says Dr. Michelle Hauser, a clinical fellow in medicine at Harvard Medical School and a certified chef and nutrition educator.
What is carbohydrate quality?
Most carbohydrates in food are sugars and starches, which provide the energy you need to get up and go. Digestion converts them into blood sugar (glucose). In response, the pancreas shoots insulin into your system to help the glucose fuel enter your cells to power their activities. Fiber is a carbohydrate, too. Although we can’t actually digest fiber, it does have important health benefits.
The healthiest carbohydrates come from fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains. Whole grains contain three components: the fiber-rich outer bran, the nutrient-rich central germ, and the starchy middle layer (endosperm).
What are high-quality carbs? High-quality carbs provide a wide range of nutrients, including health-promoting plant chemicals called phytonutrients. Fiber helps to slow the digestion of sugars and starches, thus preventing large spikes in blood sugar and insulin associated with diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain.
What are low-quality carbs? Typical low-quality carbs include white bread, white rice, pastries, and sweetened juices and beverages. Low-quality carbohydrate foods often contain refined grains, which means the grain’s natural composition has been modified by stripping away the bran and germ.
Processed foods with low-quality carbs may contain a narrower range of nutrients than whole foods, despite being artificially fortified with certain essential vitamins and minerals. They may also contain added sugar, fat, sodium, preservatives, and other substances to make them more appealing to consumers. The low-quality carbohydrates in such foods are digested quickly, triggering unhealthy spikes in blood sugar and insulin.
How to boost carbohydrate quality
Eat more of these …
Eat less of these…
French fries, potato chips, white potatoes, white rice, white bread, snack crackers, saltine/soda crackers, white-_ our breads (rolls, bagels, baguettes, Italian bread), sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals, microwave popcorn, cookies and baked goods (regular, low-fat, or low-carb)
Grains: Shop with the 10-to-1 rule
1 Look on the nutrition label for the amounts per serving (in grams) of fiber and total carbs.
2 Multiply the number of fiber carbs by 10.
3 I f that number is equal to or greater than the total carbs per serving, the food contains high-quality carbohydrate.
How to improve diet quality
If you want to improve the overall quality of your diet, make sure most of your carbohydrate calories come from healthy foods. These steps will help get you there:
Choose whole grains. When shopping for breads, cereals, and other grain-based foods, choose products with whole-grain ingredients listed first on the label. In main meals, replace some or all of the white rice or bread with intact whole grains. Brown rice, quinoa, and wheat berries are popular alternatives. If you are willing to read food nutrition labels, use the “10 to 1” rule for choosing healthy carbs.
Limit added sugars. Added sugars are “empty calories” that undermine diet quality. “They come in many disguises,” Dr. Hauser says. Look for these on the food label’s ingredients list: sucrose, fructose, dried cane syrup, molasses, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, dextrose, corn syrup, brown rice syrup, agave, honey, and dehydrated cane juice. If these appear high in the list of ingredients, the food probably contains many low-quality carbs.
Cook and eat whole foods. The highest-quality diets are based on minimally processed or unprocessed foods. Store-bought processed foods tend to pack a lot of sugar, sodium, fat, and other additives to make them appealing. The surefire antidote is buying whole foods (vegetables, fruit, and raw grains) and preparing them yourself.