Are carbohydrates victims of bad press, or are they just bad for you?
Many of the most popular diets of the past decade ― Atkins, keto, low-carb paleo ― have promoted minimal carb consumption, which likely has contributed to its demonization. We spoke to three registered dietitians (and one director of diabetes education and care) to recommend four ways of eating that promote a healthy lifestyle ― and all of them encourage the consumption of healthy carbs. Heed their advice and it could be your delicious path to eating more bread and pasta.
A Note On Low-Carb Diets
The nutritionists we spoke to noted a lack of research on the long-term effects of low-carb consumption. That said, Allison Knott, a registered dietitian and specialist in sports nutrition, has a unique way to look at low-carb diets.
“A healthy diet isn’t built on the foods you take away, it’s built on the foods you add,” Knott said. “When you start eliminating food groups, you end up struggling to meet some of the recommended intakes of vitamins, nutrients and fiber.” Registered dietitian Julie Cunningham concurs with that assessment. “It’s physiologically a fact that your brain prefers glucose for fuel and so do your muscles,” Cunningham said. “The body’s always going to want and crave carbs for that reason. Carbs are our primary fuel source.”
Whole Foods Plant-Based Diet
Dr. Caroline Trapp, the director of diabetes education and care at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, endorses this way of eating for anyone suffering from diabetes, or just anyone looking to reduce their risk of heart disease ― the leading cause of death globally. The WFPB diet encourages the consumption of fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes like black beans and chickpeas, while avoiding processed foods and animal products.
“It drives me crazy when my patients talk about not eating carbs,” Trapp told HuffPost. “I think it’s important to distinguish between whole food carbohydrates and carbohydrates from highly processed foods that have had the fiber removed.” Healthy, whole-food carbs include oatmeal (rolled, steel cut, or oat groats), quinoa, millet, couscous, barley, farro and whole grain bread with at least three grams of fiber per serving. “Fiber helps to regulate blood sugar, lower cholesterol and turn diabetes around,” she said. “It’s the nutrient I’d love to see people focus on.”
The Mediterranean diet is based on the eating habits of those who live on or near the Mediterranean Sea. Cunningham notes that they participate in regular physical activity like walking, and eat considerably different from the standard American diet. That includes consuming fatty fish like salmon, tuna, herring, sardines and mackerel, and also a ton of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. Don’t worry, they also eat tasty carbs like whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta and brown rice. She notes that this diet is ideal for the prevention of heart disease.
“We don’t want refined products like white rice, plain white pasta and sugary breakfast cereals,” Cunningham said. “You want whole grains. Make sure the first ingredient on any bread you buy is whole grains, and that it has at least two grams of fiber per serving. Choose brown rice over white rice. Quinoa is also good, and anything that’s an ancient grain.” She recommends between 6-11 servings of grains daily, depending on your calorie needs.
The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is used to help the one in three Americans who suffer from high blood pressure. It’s a favorite of Knott’s, who likes that it encourages increased consumption of fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts and oils, while also allowing for dairy products, fish and poultry. “Like most diets that are well-balanced in their recommendations when it comes to food groups, it recommends limiting [foods with] added sugar, like sugar-sweetened beverages,” she said.
Knott loves “any whole grain that’s in its natural state” like brown rice, farro and quinoa, but also pointed out that lentils are both carbohydrate-packed and full of plant protein. And don’t forget the starchy vegetables. “Potatoes, corn, peas and carrots are a little higher in carbs [than other vegetables out there], but they’re all encouraged,” she said. “The key is to meet the recommended servings of plant-based sources of carbs, and getting enough fruits, veggies, beans, seeds, nuts, legumes and whole grains, but not thinking about the amount of carbs.”
Registered dietitian Melissa Mitri endorses the flexitarian diet because it’s well-balanced and “focuses more on what to include in your diet rather than what to restrict.” Flexitarian followers consume mostly plant-based foods, but the diet also allows them to eat a small amount of animal products. “It focuses on getting in more fiber and vegetarian sources of protein [like legumes], which has shown to be helpful for reducing cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk while keeping you full,” she said. Mitri notes that the ideal amount of carbs to consume per day is based on your individual needs.
“It’s easier to overdo it on the types of non-healthy carbs we crave like cookies, pasta, white bread and other foods that don’t fill us up,” Mitri said. Instead, she recommends whole grains like quinoa, teff, bulgur and carb-filled vegetables. “Winter squash, spaghetti squash, corn, sweet potatoes and peas are starchier, higher-carbohydrate veggies,” she said. “They’re all filling, nutritious and high in vitamin A, which is good for your immune system, and high in fiber, which is good for digestion.”
As always, consult your doctor before changing your diet. But if you’re looking to get healthier while still eating carbs, consider these four plans.