The foods we eat contain at least one, or a combination of, the following three components: nutrient-dense fat, muscle-building protein and energy-supplying carbohydrates. Each of these macronutrients serves important roles in our body, with carbohydrates being the brain’s preferred energy source. Common carbohydrate foods include breads, cereals, pasta, grains, fruits, some vegetables, and beans and legumes, to name a few.
Carbohydrates, which include sugars, starches and fiber, can be categorized into two general types: simple and complex. Simple carbs, including such items as table sugar and fructose, are made of single sugar units and are easier to digest. Complex carbohydrates, including starches and fiber, are made of longer chains of sugar units, which digest more slowly.
Carbs: Good or Bad?
Carbohydrates have received somewhat of a bad rap in recent years, but they actually do provide many health benefits, serving as the body’s main power source and providing vital nutrients such as iron, folate, antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, zinc and magnesium.
In addition, complex carbohydrates, such as fiber-rich whole grains, have their own perks, helping to reduce cholesterol levels and lower one’s risk of heart disease and diabetes. They also help your body feel fuller for longer after a meal, which can help cut down on between-meal snacking. Common sources of complex carbohydrates include bulgur, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, oats, wheat berries and barley.
However, too much of a good thing can be detrimental to health. When we regularly consume more than the recommended daily amount of carbohydrates, the body can develop insulin resistance, which increases a person’s risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Obesity is another common result of eating too many carbs, since excess carbs tend to get stored by the body as fat.
For these reasons, it is best to limit your consumption of refined and processed carbohydrates—especially those found in cookies and cakes, white bread, sweetened cereals, and sodas, to name a few.
Should We Avoid Certain Carbs?
Although not all carbohydrates provide the same benefits, breads and potatoes are NOT the enemy. When eaten in moderation, they can add variety and appeal to meals. However, when choosing the carbs you eat, try to select more fiber-rich options and make them a part of a well-balanced diet. For instance, depending on the type you select, a slice of bread can supply as little as 50 calories and as much as 4 grams of fiber.
A Closer Look at Food Labels
If you’re new to nutrition labels and facts on food packaging, that information can be quite confusing.
The first thing you want to check on food labels is the serving size, which shows not only the number of servings in that particular food product, but also the serving measurement. The serving size may be measured in household units such as grams, ounces or cups. For example, if a container lists that there are 8 servings and the serving size is ½ cup, then all measurements listed for those nutrients on the label will be based on that ½ cup serving—not on the entire container.
For carbs, you need to look at the total carbohydrate content, which includes both fiber and sugar.
What’s With the Keto Buzz?
Information in the media and on the internet has made it difficult to know which nutrition recommendations are safe and most appropriate to follow. For instance, the ketogenic diet (commonly known as “keto”) has become very popular in the past year or two. Despite the unfounded hype surrounding the keto diet in some spheres, it can have its place. The effects of the keto diet are currently being studied in cancer and diabetes patients, and it is a recommended diet for children and adults with certain seizure disorders.
In the simplest terms, keto is a diet that consists of high fat and low carbohydrate content. People who follow the keto diet consistently deprive the body of sufficient carbohydrates so that it “burns” stored and ingested fat for energy, which typically results in weight loss. The name “keto” comes from the fact that during this process, the body produces ketones, a chemical substance, as a byproduct of fat metabolism.
As with any diet that restricts certain foods or food groups, a keto diet may be difficult to maintain over long periods of time. More importantly, it should be followed under the direction of a dietitian and your doctor to ensure that you’re getting all the essential nutrients your body needs.
Tips for a Healthier You
We should all strive to eat the foods that best contribute to our health. Here are a few “carb tips” to help you accomplish that:
• Limit added sugars in your diet, including sugar-sweetened beverages.
• Limit refined carbohydrates (sweets, white flour, processed grains).
• Consume nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes.
• Make sure at least half of the carbohydrates you consume come from whole-grain sources.
• To help protect your health, avoid excessive amounts of any type of carb.
If you’re confused about carbs—for instance, if you’re unsure which ones are most beneficial and which are less so—or if you would like professional advice to help you assess your food and eating preferences and make the healthiest food choices, seeing a registered dietitian can help.
For more information about seeing a dietitian, visit Sentara.com.
1 onion, chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
2 carrots, diced
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 (14.5-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 cups dry lentils
8 cups water
1/2 cup spinach, rinsed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons vinegar
Salt to taste
Ground black pepper to taste
1. In a large soup pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and celery; cook and stir until onion is tender. Stir in garlic, bay leaf, oregano and basil; cook for two minutes.
2. Stir in lentils and add water and tomatoes. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for at least one hour. When ready to serve, stir in spinach and cook until it wilts. Stir in vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper—and more vinegar, if desired.
Per serving: 349 calories, 10 grams fat (1 gram saturated fat), 98 milligrams sodium, 48 grams carbohydrates, 22 grams fiber and 18 grams protein (adapted from Allrecipes.com)
Warm Farro Salad
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons lemon juice
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup farro
2 cups chopped kale
1/2 cup crumbled reduced-fat feta cheese
1. Mix olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper together in a bowl.
2. Combine chicken broth and farro together in a large frying pan or wok; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and simmer until farro is tender and the broth is absorbed, 20-25 minutes.
3. Stir olive oil mixture into farro until farro is coated. Add kale to farro mixture; cook and stir until kale is wilted, two to three minutes. Sprinkle feta cheese over farro salad and stir until cheese is incorporated. Season salad with more salt and pepper, if desired.
Per serving: 174 calories, 5.6 grams fat (2 grams saturated fat), 531 milligrams sodium, 26 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams fiber and 6 grams protein (adapted from Allrecipes.com)
How Many Carbs Are Enough?
In general, men and women should consume 35-60 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15 grams per snack. Individuals may be closer to the higher or lower ends depending on lifestyle, insulin resistance, weight goals and activity level.