Foods rich in carbohydrates often get a bad reputation for causing weight gain or being linked to different types of health issues. But healthy high-carbohydrate foods exist — usually as low-protein, low-fat foods that come from complex carbohydrate sources. Complex carbohydrates include foods like whole grains and starchy, fibrous vegetables. Eating high-carb, low-protein, low-fat foods can help improve your metabolic health as well as your digestive system function.
Low-Fat, High-Carb, Low-Protein Diets
Traditionally, a balanced diet is meant to contain 50 to 60 percent carbohydrates, 12 to 20 percent protein and 30 percent fat. Data from the United States Department of Agriculture has shown that most Americans consume diets close to this, with an average of 48.1 percent carbohydrates, 11.3 percent protein and 40.6 percent fat. In contrast, high-carb, low-protein diets can range from 64 percent carbohydrates, 18 percent protein and 18 percent fat to 85 percent carbohydrates, 9 percent protein and 6 percent fat.
Diets rich in carbohydrates that are also low in protein and fat are popular among certain populations with long life spans. The protein-to-carbohydrate ratio associated with a longer life span is typically 1-to-10, respectively. People on the island of Okinawa in Japan who have diets of similar proportions have a longer life span and fewer age-related diseases than average. These diets are specifically focused on high-carb, low-protein, low-fat foods.
However, high-carbohydrate diets have been shown to be clinically relevant, helping reverse liver disease and improving the health of diabetics. Just like the Okinawan diet, diets like these typically promote consumption of complex carbs without fat — specifically creating a high-fat, low-protein, low-fat diet filled with unrefined, complex carbohydrates that are more positive for your metabolism and digestive system.
Eating High-Carb Foods
Most people who consume a Western diet ingest 2,000 calories a day. This means that the average person is consuming half of her calories in carbohydrates, which equals about 250 grams of carbohydrates per day.
In contrast, the Okinawan diet has 85 percent carbohydrates, which is the equivalent of 425 grams carbohydrates if you’re eating the same number of calories. Regardless of the type of diet you're into, choosing which carbohydrate-rich foods are healthiest can be confusing since there are so many different types.
Carbohydrates can be one of two types: simple or complex. According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, simple carbohydrates are carbs like sugar (naturally occurring like fruit, or added), while complex carbohydrates are carbs like the fiber found in whole grains or the starch in vegetables. In general, consuming more complex carbs and fewer simple carbs is better for you.
High-carbohydrate foods include a wide variety of foods such as:
- Candies, desserts and other foods rich in sweeteners
- Noodles and pasta
- Crackers, bread and other baked goods
- Chips, popcorn and other types of snacks
- Fruits like bananas and mangoes
- Vegetables like sweet potato and eggplant
- Beans, peas, lentils and other legumes
You can utilize resources like the USDA Food Composition Database to identify high-carb foods that are low in fat and protein. In general, carbohydrates that come from unrefined, unprocessed foods will always be healthier for you.
High-Carb Food Negatives
Carbohydrates have a bad reputation because they tend to be processed, refined and available in a variety of high-fat products. This trend has meant that high-carbohydrate diets have often been tied to an increased chance of health issues like cardiovascular disease and diabetes. However, the link between carbohydrate-rich diets and disease is typically related to the consumption of refined grain products, sugary products, processed foods and fried foods.
A diet rich in refined high-carbohydrate foods would be considered an unhealthy diet. If you’re looking for high-carb, low-protein, low-fat foods, you should eat fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes — basically, complex carbohydrates in all shapes and sizes. Consuming a balanced diet, even if it's primarily carbohydrate based, is important for the health of your digestive system, since every food that you eat has the potential to change your microbiome and overall health.
According to a 2014 study in Nature, the microbes that live in your gut are influenced by the foods you eat every day. Unbalanced diets can cause certain types of unhealthy microbes to take up residence in your gastrointestinal system, while healthy diets are more likely to encourage the growth of healthy microbes.
Healthy Complex Carbohydrate Choices
Eating high-carbohydrate, low-protein, low-fat foods means that you need to include a variety of healthy carbohydrates in your daily diet. Ideally, you should eat a variety of complex carbohydrates, while minimizing your animal protein and fat intake. Fortunately, this means that a wide variety of plant-based foods are available to you since these foods are typically low in fat and most are low in protein. This means that complex carbohydrates can come from fruits like:
Complex carbohydrates can also come from vegetables like:
- Brussels sprouts
- Sweet potato
Complex carbohydrates can also come from grains and grain-products like:
- All-bran cereals and high-fiber breakfast cereals
- Pita, multigrain, pumpernickel and other types of whole-grain bread
- Oat-based products like oatmeal and oatcakes
- Cornmeal products like polenta and porridge
- Pasta and noodles, particularly those made with buckwheat and other whole grains
- Brown rice and wild rice
You can also obtain complex carbohydrates from nuts, seeds and legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils, split peas, and various types of beans, including soybeans. You should be aware that these foods have more protein compared to other plant-based products. However, these plant-based protein sources are a good way to enrich your diet with both protein and carbohydrates simultaneously. If you're uncertain about how to plan a high-carbohydrate diet, you can always use the Okinawan diet as an example, since this high-carb, low-fat, low-protein diet has well-studied health benefits.
Okinawan Diet Pros and Cons
The Okinawan diet is a good example of a low-fat, high-carb, low-protein diet. It's well-known that Okinawans have a longer-than-average life span and reduced incidence of various types of disease. In particular, Okinawans:
- Gain less weight
- Live longer than average
- Show fewer biomarker-based signs of aging
- Are less likely to die from age-related diseases like heart disease and cancer
The Okinawan diet is essentially based on eating fewer calories than average while consuming primarily complex carbohydrates. The residents of Okinawa typically eat a substantial amount of sweet potatoes and other vegetables as their primary foods. They also eat grains like rice, wheat and barley, legumes such as soy and small amounts of fish. Very little fruit, meat, eggs and dairy are eaten.
It's clear, however, that eating a diet like this can result in consuming a proportion of nutrients different from what is recommended by the USDA Dietary Guidelines. The Okinawan diet is extremely rich in certain nutrients:
- Vitamin B6 is consumed at 221 percent of the recommended daily intake.
- Folate (vitamin B9) is consumed at 295 percent of the recommended daily intake.
- Vitamin C is consumed at 289 percent of the recommended daily intake.
- Vitamin E is consumed at 190 percent of the recommended daily intake.
- Vitamin B2 is consumed at 45 percent of the recommended daily intake.
- Vitamin B12 is consumed at 27 percent of the recommended daily intake.
- Vitamin D is consumed at 2 percent of the recommended daily intake.
Keep in mind that, if you’re consuming a diet based around low-fat, high-carb, low-protein foods, your food choices don't have to be exactly the same as those typical of the Okinawan diet. Just be sure to supplement your high-carbohydrate diet with certain nutrients, such as vitamin B12, since certain vitamins are primarily found in animal products. You also shouldn't reduce your protein intake to less than 5 percent. Doing so can cause loss of muscle mass and is too little to maintain a good state of health overall.
Eating Carbs Without Fat
Eating a carbohydrate-rich diet isn’t too difficult, given the range of high-carb foods that are available. However, achieving the right balance of carb-rich foods with low protein and low fat can be a challenge.
Even when you're using complex carbohydrates like whole grains for preparation of carbohydrate-rich foods, figuring out how to consume them in a healthy way can be difficult. Ingredients like dairy and meat are often integrated into high-carbohydrate meals, and certain cooking methods can cause you to easily consume too much fat.
The easiest way to eliminate most fats is to alter your cooking method. Boiling, steaming and slow-cooking foods can all help reduce fat content during the cooking process, in contrast to frying or sautéing. It can be easy to change cooking techniques. Instead of frying potatoes, roast them; instead of pan-frying your dumplings, steam them.
Using methods like boiling, steaming and baking is also good for your health because these methods prevent the development of advanced glycation end products. These dietary end products can increase inflammation, insulin resistance and the development of chronic diseases. Fortunately, advanced glycation end products are typically lower in low-fat foods, meaning that you’ll be avoiding these naturally by consuming high-carbohydrate, low-protein, low-fat foods.
- Frontiers in Neuroscience: The Vagus Nerve at the Interface of the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis
- Nature: Diet Rapidly and Reproducibly Alters the Human Gut Microbiome
- Indian Journal of Medical Research: Are Excess Carbohydrates the Main Link to Diabetes & Its Complications in Asians?
- Journal of the American Dietetic Association: Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet
- Nutrients: Dietary Advanced Glycation End Products and Risk Factors for Chronic Disease
- Age and Ageing: New Horizons: Dietary Protein, Ageing and the Okinawan Ratio
- NIH Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals
- Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: Caloric Restriction, the Traditional Okinawan Diet, and Healthy Aging: The Diet of the World’s Longest-Lived People and Its Potential Impact on Morbidity and Life Span
- Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: Caloric Restriction, the Traditional Okinawan Diet, and Healthy Aging
- Hamilton Boys High School Rowing: Complex Carbohydrates Examples
- USDA: Food Composition Databases
- Mayo Clinic: Healthy Lifestyle: Nutrition and Healthy Eating
- USDA: Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020
- Journal of Nutrition: A High-Carbohydrate, High-Fiber, Low-Fat Diet Results in Weight Loss Among Adults at High Risk of Type 2 Diabetes
- Digestive Diseases and Sciences: Low-Fat, High-Carbohydrate Parenteral Nutrition (PN) May Potentially Reverse Liver Disease in Long-Term PN-Dependent Infants
- European Journal of Nutrition: Three Types of a High-Carbohydrate Diet Are Differently Associated With Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Korean Adults
- British Journal of Sports Medicine: Evidence That Supports the Prescription of Low-Carbohydrate High-Fat Diets: A Narrative Review
- Mechanisms of Ageing and Development: Demographic, Phenotypic, and Genetic Characteristics of Centenarians in Okinawa and Japan: Part 1—Centenarians in Okinawa
- European Journal of Nutrition: A Low-Fat High-Carbohydrate Diet Reduces Plasma Total Adiponectin Concentrations Compared to a Moderate-Fat Diet With No Impact on Biomarkers of Systemic Inflammation in a Randomized Controlled Feeding Study
- Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny: Health Effects of Changes in the Structure of Dietary Macronutrients Intake in Western Societies
- Kaiser Permanente: Balancing Carbs, Protein, and Fat
- Nature: Diet: Microbiota Interactions as Moderators of Human Metabolism