It’s true not all carbs are created equal, but many of them are part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.
Carbohydrates are macronutrients, like fat and protein, said registered dietitian Shahzadi Devje of Toronto.
“We fuel our bodies with glucose from carbohydrate-containing foods and this tends to be our body’s first choice for energy,” she told Global News. “Carbs are found in a long list of nutrient-dense foods.”
There are three main types of carbs — starches, sugars and fibres. Starches are found in everything from potatoes to cereal to rice, while sugar occurs naturally in fruit and is added in processed food like candy, doughnuts and juice.
“There are two types of fibre, insoluble and soluble,” she continued. “Soluble fibre is found in foods such as oats, barley, legumes and some fruits and vegetables, like berries, apples, okra and eggplant. You get insoluble fibre from wheat bran, whole grains, and some fruits and vegetables.”
And while low-carb diets are popular, some even cut out carbs altogether to lose weight or get “healthy.” Devje said there is nothing healthy about this.
“I think we’re generally confused about nutrition,” she continued. “Fundamentally, the underlying thematic principals of healthy eating are the same. We’ve been talking about these themes for a very, very long time. I think it’s a mixture of issues in translating that advice so it’s relevant and accessible to all and the fact that there’s an influx of self-proclaimed nutrition gurus and quite frankly we’re bombarded with conflicting messages.”
She adds if you cut out carbs, you lack fibre, vitamins, minerals and inflammation-fighting antioxidants.
“It’s been proven that you do not need to completely cut out carbs for a healthy life. Diets that include plenty of plant foods and whole, unprocessed grains, much like the Mediterranean diet, have been well studied and are linked to increased lifespan and decreased rates of diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.”
The best carbs
Registered dietitian Jessica Tong said so-called “good” carbs are those that are complex. “On top of providing carbohydrates or sugars alone, they contain protein and fibre, which help to control the rise of blood sugar.”
These include quinoa, steel-cut oats, sweet potatoes, bran and pulses.
Devje recommends whole-grain bread, brown rice, whole-grain barley, whole rye and popcorn.
“We want to strive for foods that are nutritionally dense and better for our health and well-being. And this means, opting for wholesome foods that are close to nature and minimally processed — more often. These should be a predominant feature of our diet.”
You should also include whole fruits, starchy vegetables like corn, pumpkin, plantain, parsnip and butternut squash, as well as dairy, like cheese and milk.
Beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas and edamame are also considered “good” carbs, she adds.
The worst carbs
But this also means there are some carbs you shouldn’t have in excess.
“I avoid using labels such as good and bad when it comes to food,” Devje continues. “Of course some choices are better than others, but by labelling food in this way, we inherently pass judgment on ourselves and others.”
She adds when we eat so-called “bad foods,” it can fuel feelings of guilt and shame. “I think it’s well established that we need to avoid ultra-processed foods as much as possible. We know that Canadians are the second-largest buyers of ultra-processed foods in the world and this isn’t doing our health any favours.”
This means cutting back on refined carbs.
“Foods made with white flour such as bread, bagels, roti, and doughnuts,” she said. “Also sugar-sweetened beverages, such as fruit juices and soda as well as pastries. These types of foods often lack in nutrition, have shown to trigger hunger and cravings and cause spikes in your blood sugars, followed by a crash.”
Tong said it comes down to understanding what you’re putting in your mouth.
“At the end of the day, people underestimate the amount of carbohydrates they are consuming,” she said. “A brown rice salad bowl at your favourite ‘healthy’ quick-serve restaurant contains up to 11 slices of bread’s worth of carbohydrates. Staying informed and being mindful of food choices are integral to healthy eating.”