Food Friday: Choosing The Right Carbohydrates

By Cassidy Hobbs Hall
Area Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences
Johnston County Cooperative Extension

The low-carb diet trend has become quite popular with countless claims of health benefits; however, the claims don’t reveal the whole truth. I can’t count the number of recipes I’ve scrolled past on my social media feed with the person posting the recipe as “healthy” simply because it is low-carb. Can a low-carb diet be healthy? Yes. Can a low-carb diet be unhealthy? Yes, especially if it contains lots of sodium and saturated fat. Let’s dive in and think this one through.

It is important to define a “low-carb diet.” Does this mean you eat no carbs at all, 50 grams of carbohydrates, or 100 grams? According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a healthy diet should consist of 45%-65% of calories eaten to be from sources of carbohydrates. On the low end of the recommendation, this translates to about 200 grams of carbohydrates based on an 1,800 calorie diet (there are 4 calories per one gram of carbohydrate). With this being said, even eating up to 100 grams of carbohydrates per day is considered a “low-carb diet.” Next, it is important to define carbohydrate sources because they are not all the same. You may have heard of simple and complex carbohydrates.

Essentially, simple carbohydrates are sources that contain no fiber and, generally, no nutrients. Examples of simple carbohydrates are things such as sugary drinks, dessert foods, potato chips, and refined grains (commonly referred to as “white grains”) such as white rice, white bread, and enriched pastas. These foods do not require much effort to convert to energy and have a quick effect on blood sugar. They tend not to keep us full for very long.

On the other hand, complex carbohydrates require more energy and effort to break down and convert to energy, contain fiber, and contain nutrients. Examples of complex carbohydrates include fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa, oatmeal, and 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat breads and pastas. Because these foods contain fiber, they do not have the quick release of energy and effect on blood sugar that simple carbohydrates will have. Essentially, these sources of carbohydrates fuel the body while being great options for those managing their blood pressure, diabetes, and help us all to fill up and stay full for longer periods of time.

Regardless of the diet trend or overall eating pattern, it is important to focus meals on fruits and vegetables. This can be done on a low-carb diet as well as a diet meeting the recommendations of 45%-65% of calories from carbohydrates. You may be surprised the recommendation is nearly half of our calories from carbohydrate sources, but keep in mind that carbohydrates are our body’s main source of energy. Without the necessary carbohydrates, you aren’t properly fueled with the energy for exercise or work and you’ll likely begin to experience a headache, inability to think or concentrate, or even nausea.

Again, when selecting carbohydrate foods, it is important to focus on complex sources from fruit, vegetables, beans, and whole grains. The typical American diet does not meet the recommendation of 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day nor does the average American make even half of their grains whole grains. Transitioning from few fruits and vegetables paired with lots of white rice and “white” refined breads and pastas to a diet of lots of fruits and vegetables and the inclusion of whole grains will result in major health improvements as well as improvements in weight.

The best diet is a diet low in sodium, added sugar, and saturated fat that includes lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, lean protein, and low-fat dairy. Regardless if you are a low-carb dieter or just trying to make better choices, fruits and vegetables are the cornerstone to a healthy lifestyle. You want to choose a diet that meets these requirements and is something you can stick with for the long haul!

Previous Food Friday Article: The 3 P’s To Increasing Your Fruits & Veggies