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Carbohydrates have been the mainstay of diets around the world for thousands of years, but recently they’ve been under attack on the web and in some best-selling diet books, leaving the average person thoroughly confused.

Are carbs really bad for me? What the heck is a carb, anyway? Sodas and spinach are both carbohydrate foods. So are Oreos and oats, pancakes and plums, and cakes and cucumbers.  Whether carbs are “good” or “bad” for you depends entirely on the quality of the ones you choose.

It may help you to think of carbohydrate choices on a quality continuum, starting with the healthiest, top-quality choices and progressing to less healthy choices. Make more of your carb choices from the beginning of this list than from the end, and you’ll be eating well. It’s as simple as that.

Fruits and Vegetables

Fruits and vegetables
You can’t go wrong with fruits, vegetables, and legumes (beans). Because they deliver lots of vitamins, minerals, and fiber for relatively few calories, these foods are all-stars. As Dr. David Katz, Director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center says, “You find me one person who can legitimately blame their obesity or diabetes on apples or carrots, and I will give up my day job and become a hula dancer.”

Intact Grains

Intact grains
Running neck and neck with fruits and vegetables are intact whole grains. Like fruits and veggies, intact whole grains are powerhouses of nutrition, also loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They’re a more concentrated form of carbohydrate, largely because they have less water, so keep portions moderate. Best choice of all? Eat your intact whole grains with lots of vegetables, as in the quinoa bowl shown here.

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Lightly processed whole grains

Sometimes intact whole grains are very lightly processed—oats are steamed/flattened for rolled oats, or grains are crushed, mixed with water and extruded to make whole grain pasta. These are also good choices. Most people don’t know pasta has a low glycemic index; flour and water made into pasta digests much more slowly than the same flour and water made into bread. That makes pasta a healthier choice for controlling blood sugar swings.

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Milled and processed, but whole and without sugar
Grains count as “whole” whenever all of their original bran, germ, and endosperm are still present—even if the grains have been made into breads, crackers, and cereals. Look for whole grain foods that are made without extra ingredients—just good whole grains, without added sugar.

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Refined pasta meals
Like whole grain pasta, refined pasta has a low glycemic index. It’s missing some of the nutrients found in whole grain pasta, however, so if you eat it, make sure to add lots of vegetables, beans, fish and other healthy “partners.” 
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Refined breadswith what?
When whole grains aren’t available and white bread is the only choice, pay special attention to what you’re eating with your bread, choosing vegetables and lean proteins. Tip: true sourdough breads are less likely to spike blood sugar than yeast breads.
Cookies and cakes

Special occasion treats
Grain foods high in sugar and extra fats are meant to be eaten rarely—at most a few times a week, not every day. While most whole grain versions are marginally healthier than their refined counterparts, a whole grain cookie is still a cookie, so save these treats for special occasions.

Sara and I just returned from Rome, where both of us spoke at a meeting of the International Carb Quality Consortium, chaired by Drs. Walter Willett and David Jenkins. As the studies and graphs by an eminent group of the world’s top carbohydrate scientists demonstrated, there are many complex ways to rate the quality of carbohydrates. Counting, scoring, and rating foods can take the enjoyment out of eating, however—and eating is meant to be one of life’s major pleasures. If you simply use common sense to favor the most intact, whole carbohydrate choices as outlined above, there’s no need to eat by the numbers. 

So simply keep the Carb Quality continuum above in mind, and you’re equipped to go forth and enjoy healthy carbohydrates without worrying about the scare-mongering from some websites and diet books. Or better still, download a PDF copy, and post it in your kitchen! 

Cynthia Harriman, Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies

Comments

Laura Dunkley
Yes! Someone finally agrees with me that carbs are not necessarily bad. It depends on the type and what you eat with it. I've been preaching this and supporting this for almost 30 years. I was raised in a culture where we ate a lot of carbs, ground provisions (name, yucca, yautia, etc), fresh fruit, beans as well as bread, rice (mostly white unfortunately) and fresh juices. We grew up healthy without weight problems or other chronic illnesses but we were active as heck which probably made the difference.

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