How To Choose The Right Carbohydrates

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All Plants Have Carbohydrates

Here’s a typical exchange between a patient and me during a nutrition counseling session about carbs:

Me: Are there any foods or food groups that you avoid?

Patient: I avoid carbohydrates.

Me (internal gasp): OK, so take me through a day. What do you eat for breakfast?

Patient: I eat yogurt with fruit.

Me: (scratching head): Hmmm.

There’s so much confusion out there about nutrition and carbohydrates in particular. The first time I received any kind of formal education on carbohydrates was during an elective nutrition course in college, so I’m hardly surprised that many people don’t know what carbs are or where they’re found. However, what I do have a difficult time grasping is why anyone would want to completely avoid carbohydrates in the first place.

What exactly are carbohydrates and why are they important to our overall health?

Plants manufacture carbohydrates via photosynthesis and store them as energy. Contrary to popular belief, all plant foods contain carbohydrates, including fruit, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. But they’re also in milk and yogurt in the form of lactose. In fact, this patient’s one cup of plain yogurt topped with one serving of fruit provides roughly 30 grams of carbohydrates.

yogurt with strawberries

Carbohydrates provide our bodies with energy and are the preferred fuel for red blood cells, the brain and the central nervous system. People who avoid carbohydrates tend to feel tired and irritable, and have a hard time focusing. Eating carbs allows protein to be used for other important tasks besides energy.

Did you know even fiber is actually a carb? It’s an undigested carbohydrate that helps fight inflammation, prevent constipation, feed healthy colonic bacteria and promote heart health.

Not all carbohydrates are created equal.

All of us could benefit from limiting or avoiding added sugar, white flour and other processed carbohydrates. See “How to avoid eating too much added sugar.” Choose unprocessed carbohydrates that are rich in nutrients, including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds. If your body has a tough time tolerating fiber then peel skins, avoid seeds, cook foods until soft or blend until smooth.

Once again, the bottom line remains the same: choose whole foods.