Many diets promote eating as few carbs as possible as the best path to weight loss and good health. However, there are many examples of healthy carbohydrate foods that promote energy, increase protection from chronic disease and help build a great physique.
It's not carbohydrates themselves that can derail your diet and health, but the types you choose to eat. Don't ban carbohydrates entirely — instead, swap out the French fries and white bread for some of the foods on this healthy carbs list.
Healthy carbs you should consume more often come from vegetables, whole grains, legumes and fresh fruits. These offer vital nutrients and fiber to promote optimal health.
What Exactly Are Carbohydrates?
You may have heard that carbohydrates are something to avoid — but a carbohydrate is not the enemy, explains the Harvard School of Public Health. Carbohydrates are the most important source of energy for your body, according to Medline Plus. When you consume a carbohydrate, your body changes it into glucose, which is then stored and used for energy powering organs, cells and body tissues.
Carbohydrates are found in a wide variety of foods, including quite nutritious ones like whole-grain bread and cereals, fresh vegetables and fruits. Because whole grains are so valuable to your health, the USDA My Plate Dietary Recommendations for Americans advises that half of all grains you eat daily be of the whole variety.
The problem with carbohydrates is that some come in less-than-healthy forms. Refined carbohydrates have many of their nutrients stripped away, so you get a dose of sugar without much (or any) fiber, vitamins, minerals or phytonutrients. When you skip these refined carbohydrates and choose healthy ones instead, your body will thank you.
Fiber in whole grains, for example, keeps your digestive tract healthy. As noted in a position paper published in the Journal of the Academy Nutrition and Dietetics in November 2015, populations that consume more fiber have less chronic disease.
Adequate fiber intake can actually reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers — and as a bonus, fiber can help you lose weight.
What Are the Healthy Carbs?
The carbs to ditch are those that are highly-refined and processed. Examples of refined carbs include:
- White bread and crackers
- Regular (not whole-wheat) pasta
- Pie, cake and cookies
- Soft drinks, such as soda and sugar-sweetened juices and energy drinks,
As noted in a paper in BMJ published in June 2018, quality is more important than amount consumed when it comes to carbohydrates. Non-starchy vegetables, whole fruits, legumes and whole grains are protective against chronic disease, and serve as good examples of healthy, high-carbohydrate foods.
Whole grains such as old-fashioned or steel cut oats, brown rice, quinoa and barley represent some healthy carbs, as long as they have been minimally-processed. The Whole Grains Council explains that whole grains still have all three original parts of their structure — the bran, germ and endosperm — intact for you to consume. Refined grains strip away these structures to leave an easily digestible food that doesn't give you the nutrients of the original product.
Legumes, as explained by the BMJ paper, improve the overall nutritional quality of your diet. They provide you with plenty of fiber and protein, as well as other nutrients. Consumption of legumes can decrease bad cholesterol levels, and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Sweet potatoes and winter squash (butternut, acorn and kabocha) are natural carbohydrates that offer a wide variety of essential, health-protecting nutrients. They all contain compounds called carotenoids, compounds that help reduce the risk of uncontrolled cell growth. This type of growth contributes to cancer development, explains the Institute for Cancer Research. Carotenoids, specifically lutein and zeaxanthin, protect your eyes and the quality of your eyesight. Winter squash and sweet potatoes contain lots of potassium, fiber and vitamin C as well.
Read More: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs
When your diet includes more whole fruits and vegetable sources of carbohydrates, you may reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and all-cause mortality, according to a study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in June 2017. This means that all fruits — including those with the highest carbohydrate counts like bananas and dates — are foods you should be eating more often.
- Whole Grains Council: "Homepage"
- USDA Choose My Plate: "Food Groups"
- Harvard School of Public Health: "Carbohydrates"
- Medline Plus: "Carbohydrates"
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Health Implications of Dietary Fiber"
- BMJ: "Dietary Carbohydrates: Role of Quality and Quantity in Chronic Disease"
- American Institute for Cancer Research: "Winter Squash, Pumpkin, and Sweet Potato"
- International Journal of Epidemiology: "Fruit and Vegetable Intake and the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Total Cancer and All-cause Mortality-a Systematic Review and Dose-response Meta-analysis of Prospective Studies"