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Carbohydrates: The Right Kind are Good

July 3, 2015 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

If you’re confused about carbohydrates, you’re not alone.

They’ve been good guys or bad guys, depending on who’s talking, for years. How much or how little is good or bad for us? Where do they belong in our diet? Of course, it’s confusing.

As far as I’m concerned, the back-and-forth can end. And in the same way as the once-raging (and equally confusing) cholesterol and fat battles ended.

We now understand that it’s not a black/white, bad/good issue—there are good and bad carbs in all kinds of foods. They’re a critically important source of the energy our bodies need to function 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

They’re so important that one influential study recommends that 45–65 percent of our daily caloric intake comes from carbs.

The good news is that it’s pretty easy to tell the good and bad carbs apart. And there are powerful benefits to eating accordingly.

The role of good carbs in your diet

Good carbs deliver fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals along with their energy-giving carbohydrate content. The fiber—found only in plant foods—is critically important. It’s the part we can’t fully break down and digest.

That makes it especially beneficial, as it slows carb absorption, which in turn, prevents the rapid ups and downs in your blood sugar levels that increase your risk for type 2 diabetes.

Fiber also helps us feel full with smaller amounts of food—which is great if you’re trying to shed pounds. Certain kinds can also help lower cholesterol, and some studies show links between increased fiber and reduced risk of colon cancer.

The risks of bad carbs in your diet

Over-consumption of bad carbs is nothing short of a national tragedy—the source of our ballooning obesity, the diabetes epidemic, and other health risks. Bad carbs are found primarily in processed foods. And, as I’ve said, the most villainous are easy to identify and easy to eliminate from your diet.

Avoid white foods—white rice, refined sugar, white flour, white flour-based bread, buns, muffins, tacos, wraps, bagels, cakes, pastries, and sauces.

Don’t, of course, avoid natural white foods like turnips, white fruits and asparagus, white beans, organic dairy, and grass-fed lean white pork and chicken. If nature made it white, and humans didn’t intervene with pesticides, hormones, or other non-natural ingredients, it’s likely a good carb.

If a process made it white, leave it on the shelf.

That will put a healthy barrier between you and:

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  • Increased risk for type 2 diabetes
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My optimal mix

I recommend you get 40% of your daily calories from good carbs, 30% from protein, and 30% from fat. So on a 2,000 calories/day diet, get 800 calories from carbs. On a 1,500 calories/day diet, get about 600 calories from your carbs.

Fiber? I recommend that all adults get 45 grams per day. (I know, 45 of something sounds like a lot, but that’s only about 1.5 ounces.)

So a handful of fruits, vegetables, nuts, or seeds every day does the trick—deliciously, and with plenty of additional nutritional benefits.

And never fall for the new labeling trend that says, “ONE serving is the equivalent of FIVE servings of fresh fruit and vegetables!”

Only five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables give you the equivalent of five servings of fresh fruit and vegetables.

So start…slowly        

It’s tempting to finish a piece like this and swear you’ll change your ways: “I’m going good carb—now!!”

Don’t fall into that trap. I recommend small bites that add up to a big, healthy change.

Pick one good-carb food you don’t usually eat much of. An easy choice is also a delicious one: fresh fruit. Buy some. Put a couple of pieces somewhere where you’ll see them as you go about your day.

Now, set yourself a tangible, measurable goal: “Ok, I’ll eat that peach/apple/mango today.” It won’t take long for you to want that piece of fruit every day. It wins its way into your diet.

Do the same with, say, nuts and seeds—both high-fiber supercarbs. Half a cup a day—a mere handful—of sunflower seed kernels gets you nearly 8 grams. A cup of cooked split peas delivers 16 grams. Between the two, you’re more than halfway to 45.

A cup of raspberries adds 8 grams—and you’ve hit 32 grams. Add a cup of green peas, which is nearly 9 grams and a medium apple at 4.4 grams, and you’ve had a great fiber day.

With fruits, nuts, seed, grains, cereals, pastas, veggies, and beans all contributing fiber, you have endless healthy menu choices.

So eat your way through the list of good carbs, and use them to replace bad-carb staples like white bread.

You’ll feel great and you’ll be taking very good care of yourself.

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