As fad diets have come and gone, carbohydrates (carbs) have gotten a bad reputation. But carbs are one of the best and most important sources of energy and are rich in nutrients your body needs to function properly. In fact, for most of us, carbs should account for roughly 40 to 55 percent of our daily calories. The trick is to choose carbs that pack the most nutritional punch.
The Role of Carbs—and Choosing Them Wisely
Your body turns carbs into glucose (blood sugar), which is used for energy to do everything from breathing to reading, talking to exercising. And just like a crackling fire only stays lit if wood is added to the hearth, your body needs carbs in order to keep doing all the things it needs to do—and to thwart sugar highs and lows, which can affect mood, focus and more.
More: Eating for Energy
You may have heard of complex and simple—or even “good” and “bad”—carbs. But at Canyon Ranch, we prefer to forego such labels in favor of focusing on making “whole-food carbs” a regular part of your diet. These deliver more than just carbohydrates and are accompanied by vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, like fiber. Vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds and whole-grain breads and cereals are some examples of whole-food carbs.
While there’s room for all kinds of food in your life, we suggest minimizing your intake of processed carbs, like sugary breakfast cereals, rice cakes and cookies. Besides offering far less nutritional value, these foods will cause you to experience a sugar rush quickly followed by a crash, since refined sugars don’t take very long to digest—much like a flame will quickly flare up when twigs are added, only to flicker out soon after. You’ll be satisfied momentarily, but will then search for something else to eat to get your energy back up.
Try to limit your intake of processed carbs by cutting back on foods with words like “syrup” (corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, malt syrup) and “sugar” (brown sugar, invert sugar), as well as anything ending in “ose” (dextrose, fructose, glucose, lactose, maltose, sucrose), in the ingredient list.
The Glycemic Index
You may have also heard people talk about the glycemic score of various foods, which is another way of measuring how your body converts carbohydrates into energy. Foods with a high glycemic index (GI), such as white bread, usually aren’t whole-food carbohydrates and they will trigger a spike in your blood sugar level. A score of 70 or above signals that food has a high glycemic index.
Foods that have a low glycemic index, such as whole grains and oats, also tend to be whole-food carbs and are digested slowly, keeping your blood sugar lower and more stable. Foods with a score of 55 or below have a low glycemic index. You can check the score of a variety of foods at glycemicindex.com.
While it may be helpful to use the glycemic rating as a reference point when making food choices, your diet should not be based solely upon their glycemic rating. This number provides information on how a food potentially affects blood sugar. For example, while drinking carrot juice will definitely have an effect on blood sugar, it is also packed with beta-carotene and other nutrients, making it a healthier alternative to soda, fruit drinks or artificially sweetened beverages.
Those who have health issues related to blood sugar control can utilize the glycemic index as a guide to help manage their condition:
- Limit portions of high GI foods.
- When having higher-glycemic foods, combine them with lower-glycemic foods.
- Substitute low-glycemic, high-fiber foods, such as vegetables, low-glycemic fruits, beans and whole grains, for higher-glycemic options.
- Balance meals with lean protein and healthy fats.
Be sure to include whole-food carbs in most of your meals and snacks to keep your energy levels high and stable throughout the day. Your portion sizes will depend on your calorie needs, activity level and health goals. The USDA recommends filling half of your plate with vegetables and fruits, and we suggest making most of the grains you eat whole grains. Talk to your doctor or your nutritionist if you need help customizing an eating plan, and consult the list below for a reminder of all the good-for-you whole-food carbs you can choose from.
- Vegetables: dark leafy greens, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, bell peppers, carrots, radishes, cabbages, artichokes, squash, asparagus and sweet potatoes
- Fruits: apples, pears, berries, cherries, plums, peaches, grapes and oranges
- Legumes: all varieties of beans (such as red, black, pinto and garbanzo), black-eyed peas and lentils
- Nuts and Seeds: almonds, cashews, peanuts, pistachios, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds
- Whole grains: barley, kasha, bulgur wheat, rice (basmati, wild and long grain), oats, quinoa, rye, millet, amaranth, corn and wheat berries
- Whole-grain foods: whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat tortillas, whole-grain crackers, whole-grain cereals and muesli
- Dairy and dairy-free alternatives: yogurt; almond, soy and cow’s milk