Many fad diets give carbohydrates a bad rap, leading you to believe that they’re the cause of unwanted weight gain. But carbs are an essential part of a healthy diet.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Before you feast on chicken and boycott carbs, take a closer look at the U.S. Food Pyramid. Carbohydrates are highlighted as an important part of a healthy diet, and not banned by any means. Your body needs a wide variety of foods to function and stay healthy.
“Carbohydrate is one of the macronutrients that we need, primarily for energy,” says Sandra Meyerowitz, MPH, RD, a nutritionist, online nutrition coach, and owner of Nutrition Works in Louisville, Ky. While fats and protein are also necessary for energy, they’re more of a long-term fuel source, while carbohydrates fulfill the body’s most immediate energy needs. “It’s your body’s first source of energy — that’s what it likes to use,” adds Meyerowitz. Why does the body prefer carbs? Specifically because they’re easier and faster to break down and use than proteins or fats, she explains. So don’t deny your body what it needs to keep up with your active lifestyle.
What Are the Types of Carbohydrates?
There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Complex carbohydrates, which should make up most of your carbohydrate intake, require more work and take longer for your body to break down.
“It’s a slower process,” says Meyerowitz. But that’s a good thing — while simple carbohydrates are broken down more quickly, they don’t do much for your body. Because complex carbohydrates are broken down slowly, they give your bloodstream a more consistent level of energy, so you avoid the “highs and lows” that simple carbohydrates can give you, explains Meyerowitz.
What’s the Best Source of Carbs?
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You need to get between 50 and 60 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates, according to Meyerowitz. Most should be whole grains and other complex carbohydrates, but the fiber in fruits and vegetables make them a good simple carbohydrate choice. If you don’t get enough carbohydrates, you run the risk of depriving your body of the calories and nutrients it needs, or of replacing healthy carbs with unhealthy fats.
To get the carbs you need, fill your plate with the best carbohydrate sources for your body:
Whole grains like barley, bulgur, buckwheat, quinoa, and oats
Whole-wheat and other whole-grain breads
Fruits and vegetables
Beans, lentils, and dried peas
Whole-grain cereals like 100 percent bran
This doesn’t mean that you’re never allowed to have a sweet treat for dessert, a bowl of white rice, or a baked potato. It just means that those should be the exceptions instead of everyday carbohydrate selections.
At the same time, you should also avoid loading up on complex carbohydrates or making them your primary source of calories. A diet too rich in even complex carbohydrates — or in any food — packs more calories into your body, which eventually leads to weight gain.
Complex carbohydrates are good for you, so don’t look at a bowl of hearty whole-wheat pasta or brown rice as a bad thing or a big diet no-no. Instead, consider it a source of healthy fuel that your body needs to maintain consistent energy.
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