Carbohydrates are essential nutrients that provide the main source of energy to the body and the brain. Inadequate carb intake can lead to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, headaches, difficulty concentrating as well as nutritional deficiencies. Carbohydrates are divided into simple and complex carbs, the latter of which is divided into dietary fiber and starches. Simple carbs should be limited in the diet as these foods are refined and made from white sugars and flours with little nutritional value, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Many healthy food options can replace simple carbs as part of a well-balanced diet plan.
Whole-Grain Complex Carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates are not stripped of their wheat germ and bran during the refining process, meaning they retain many of the nutrients and dietary fiber not found in simple carbs. They are often lower in sugars than simple carbs and do not have sugars added to them during food processing as cited by the CDC. Complex carbohydrates include whole-grains, vegetables and certain fruits. Most fruits are simple carbs since they are higher in sugar than other foods; however, their sugars are all-natural, making them healthier than added sugars and additives found in granola bars, candy, canned foods and cookies. Fruits that have increased fiber content such as apples, pears, apricots and starches such as bananas are considered complex carbs, according to Jeni Worden of NetDoctor. Add whole-grains such as whole-wheat bread, quinoa, brown rice, millet and oats into your diet.
Vegetables are a complex carbohydrate that are nutritionally superior to simple carbs. Most vegetables are low in calories, have little to no fat, are a source of dietary fiber and have no added, refined sugars. Additionally, vegetables are a source of essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that are needed for normal body functions and contribute to a reduced risk of heart disease, certain cancers and lowering blood pressure as cited by the Harvard School of Public Health. Nutrient-dense vegetables to add to your diet include dark, leafy greens such as kale and spinach, broccoli and cauliflower, carrots, garlic sprouts, beets and green beans.
Foods that are high in protein are a healthy alternative to simple carbohydrate foods. Protein is an essential nutrient needed in the body for the growth, development and maintenance of muscle and body tissues. Unlike simple carbs, which increase insulin production in the body to cause hunger cravings, protein helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and prevent cravings that lead to overeating and potential weight gain. Avoid heavy protein foods that are high in unhealthy saturated fats such as fatty beef or bacon. Rather, incorporate lean protein foods into your diet such as chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds. Beans, lentils and tofu are also suitable protein options for non-meat eaters; select legumes that are dried and not canned as most packaged foods have added sugars and preservatives.
Low-fat dairy foods are a healthy alternative to simple carbohydrates. Dairy products are a source of protein, have naturally occurring sugars in the form of lactose and are a source of essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin D and calcium. Avoid full-fat dairy products, favoring low-fat versions instead and skip any foods that have added sugars or sweeteners. Opt for plain low-fat yogurt over fruit-on-the-bottom varieties that contain added syrups and carbs. Low-fat milk, hard cheeses and cottage cheese are also low-sugar and high-protein foods that can help satiate the appetite and prevent sugar cravings.
- Center For Disease Control and Prevention: Nutrition For Everyone: Carbohydrates
- Harvard School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source: Fruits and Vegetables
- Nancy Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, 2nd Edition; Nancy Clark, M.S., R.D., 1996
- Net Doctor: Carbohydrates; Jeni Worden, GP