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January 2015

FOCUS on Healthy Carbs

Carbohydrates have been in and out of favor over the past four decades.  This has run the spectrum from low fat diets which replaced fat with carbohydrates, to the elimination of carbs almost completely.  Both of these measures were extreme and when it comes to healthy eating, it is all about a variety of foods in moderation.  Studies reveal it is the type of carbohydrate that is important for optimal health. Let’s focus on these healthy carbs.

Carbohydrate – Basics
Carbohydrates provide the body with calories, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber.  They have several key roles in the body, including providing energy, impacting blood sugar and promoting proper elimination.

Carbohydrates have been categorized as “simple” meaning sugar, or “complex” referring to starch.  These categories no longer adequately describe the qualities of carbohydrates and when it comes to optimal health, all carbohydrates are not created equal.

Recent studies have focused on the type of carb:
  • Highly refined carbohydrates include white bread, baked items, snack foods and sugary beverages.  These have been linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  Some studies suggest too many carbohydrates, especially sugar, may be bad for your brain.
  • Minimally processed carbohydrates, such as whole grains, vegetables, legumes and fruits have been associated with a reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.  In fact, legumes have been linked to lower LDL cholesterol level, and vegetables and fruits to longevity.

What are Healthy Carbs?
When it comes to healthy carbs, it is the whole foods, or minimally processed foods, that are the best choices. 

Foods to select include fresh fruit and vegetables, beans and lentils, and whole grains such as barley and quinoa. 

These foods are high in fiber, rich in phytonutrients, have a lower glycemic index (GI) or glycemic load (GL) and nutrient dense.

GI ranks carbohydrates according to their effect on blood sugar levels.  GL takes into account both the GI and the amount of carbohydrate in a food and how both impact blood sugar.

There are some carbohydrate-rich whole foods that have naturally occurring sugar such as fruit and to a much lesser degree, vegetables.  In their fresh whole form, these foods contain fiber and are nutrient dense, so the natural sugar is not a major concern.  Just be mindful of the portion size when having fruit.  If you are diabetic or have insulin resistance, pair fresh fruit with protein to minimize spikes in blood sugar.

TIP: A small apple or 17 small grapes with low-fat string cheese is a great snack.

The Bottom Line:
When choosing carbohydrates, try to select healthy ones as much as possible. 

  • Vegetables: Aim for 5 or more servings  (a serving is 1cup raw or 1/2 cup cooked). 
  • Fruit: 2-3 servings daily (a serving is typically a small piece of fresh fruit). 
  • Grains: Include 3-6 servings of grains, with at least 3 whole grains a day (a serving is 1/2c cooked or 1oz of a bread product).  It should provide at least 3 grams of fiber and the first ingredient listed as “whole grain”. 

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