Get to Know Carbs
Carbohydrates or “carbs” get a lot of attention these days and you may wonder if you should even eat them at all. The fact is that food is made up of three main things: carbohydrate, protein, and fat. You need all of these to stay healthy, but the amounts that each person needs or chooses to eat may be very different. The most important thing is choosing the carbs that give you the most bang for your buck in terms of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Processed foods tend to be high in carbohydrate while very low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber, giving carbs a bad rap. But choosing less processed carb foods and paying attention to how much you are eating can make a big difference in your blood sugar and overall health.
Carbs come in many different forms, but let’s focus on the top three: starch, sugar and fiber.
Foods high in starch include:
- Starchy vegetables like peas, corn, lima beans and potatoes
- Dried beans, lentils and peas such as pinto beans, kidney beans, black eyed peas, and split peas
- Grains like oats, barley, rice, wheat, and others.
- Whole grains are just that, the whole plant that has been harvested and dried with little processing. They provide fiber as well as essential vitamins including B and E and other minerals needed for optimal health.
Refined grains are processed to remove the most healthful parts including fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Laws were passed in the U.S. to ensure that essential vitamins and minerals be added back in during processing as a result of vitamin and mineral deficiencies leading to diseases in children and adults.
Sugar is another source of carbohydrate. There are two main types of sugars:
- Naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk or fruit
- Added sugars that are added during processing, such as fruit canned in heavy syrup, sugar added to make a cookie, and table sugar to name a few.
There are many different names for sugar. Examples of common names are table sugar, brown sugar, molasses, honey, beet sugar, cane sugar, confectioner's sugar, powdered sugar, raw sugar, turbinado, maple syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, agave nectar and sugar cane.
If you are looking for information about sugar substitutes, look here.
Fiber comes from plant-based foods and is important for our gut health. Fiber also makes us feel full and helps lower cholesterol. Aim for 25-30 grams per day.
Fiber is found in plant foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and pulses (dried beans, peas and lentils). Fiber is like your body’s natural scrub brush, passing through your digestive tract carrying a lot of bad stuff out with it.
For optimal health, adults need to eat 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day. Most Americans do not consume nearly enough fiber in their diet, so while it is wise to aim for this goal, any increase in fiber in your diet can be helpful. Most of us only get about half of what is recommended.
Eating foods higher in fiber can improve your digestion, lower your blood sugar, and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Good sources of dietary fiber include:
- Beans and legumes. Think black beans, kidney beans, pintos, chick peas (garbanzos), white beans, and lentils
- Fruits and vegetables (for example, apples, celery and beans) and those with edible seeds (for example, berries)
Whole grains such as:
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole grain cereals like old fashioned or steel cut oats
- Whole grain breads (To be a good source of fiber, one slice of bread should have at least three grams of fiber. Another good indication: look for breads where the first ingredient is a whole grain. For example, whole wheat or oats.) Many grain products now have "double fiber" with extra fiber added.
- Nuts — try different kinds. Peanuts, walnuts, and almonds are a good source of fiber and healthy fat, but watch portion sizes, because they also contain a lot of calories in a small amount.
You can find foods that are naturally high in fiber that are labeled as “excellent source,” meaning they contain more than 5 grams of fiber; while foods labeled as “good source” contain at least 2.5 grams of fiber.
It is best to get your fiber from food rather than taking a supplement, but if that is not possible, a supplement can help.
If you haven’t been eating a lot of foods high in fiber on a daily basis, it’s important that you increase your intake slowly. Even though they are good for you, it can take time for your body to adjust. A sudden increase in eating foods high in fiber (especially foods with added fiber or when using supplements) can cause gas, bloating, or constipation. Be sure you are drinking enough water too, because fiber needs water to move through your body!