Last week, I posted The Truth About Carbs and we discussed the difference between good carbs (unrefined carbs) and bad carbs (refined carbs). For those who find it tricky to identify the difference between the two, I wanted to write another post to clarify how to choose good carbs and avoid the junky ones. So, let’s jump right in. How to choose good carbs.
Eat Real Food
When choosing any food, aiming for things that most closely resemble their natural form is always a good plan. This is true when it comes to carbohydrates as well. Aim for whole fruits and vegetables, whole unrefined grains and legumes. Choose an apple over apple juice or a carrot over carrot cake. The more processed the food, the more nutrients have been removed, and the more harmful additives have been potentially added.
You’ll see this in things like bread, cereal, pasta and refined grains. If you look at brown rice vs white rice, they are very similar, and some may even think that white rice is an intact grain, but it’s been processed and had valuable nutrients removed as a result. Brown rice has only had the husk (outermost layer) removed. However, white rice has had the husk, the bran and the germ stripped away, leaving just the endosperm. As a result, most of the fibre has been stripped away, leaving just the starchiest bits. The same goes for white flour and white pasta vs their whole-wheat counterparts.
This is what you want to avoid. Instead, choose brown rice, or other intact grains such as millet, barley, buckwheat, bulgur, quinoa etc. If some of these sound foreign to you check out the bulk bins at your grocery store and get a little serving to try. You might be surprised; the texture can be quite pleasing. Flavour it up a little by cooking in vegetable broth or add some spices and you may have found yourself a new grain option.
The Nutrition Facts Label
You may notice that carbohydrates are followed by fibre and sugar on the nutrition label. This is no accident, as carbohydrates are made up of sugar, starch and fibre. You’re looking for items that are low in sugar and high in fibre. Fibre and starch should make up the bulk of the carb amount.
Remember, a high carb amount here is not necessarily bad, it matters greatly what the sugar and fibre content are. For example, if you’re looking at the label on a bag of beans, you might see something like this:
If you’re a recovering low-carb dieter, you may see this profile and panic. Don’t worry though, beans are a high carb food but they are also excellent for your health. Notice that the bulk of the carbs come from fibre and starch. The starch isn’t listed on the nutrition label, but you get an idea of the amount based on where the fibre and sugar levels sit. The sugar amount in this example is nice and low, so this is the kind of carb you want.
Carbs from fibre are great, but carbs coming from mostly sugar are not going to treat you right. That means things like juices, sodas, and other sweetened beverages. As well as cakes and cookies. Now I’m not telling you to never eat a slice of cake or a cookie again in your life, that would be unreasonable. When it comes to sweet treats, however, try to stick to homemade. This allows you to control what goes in it so you can pump up the fibre and keep the sweeteners coming from natural sources like fruit. Check out this recipe for chocolate mint cookies made from chickpeas and oat flour. They taste better than store-bought and they aren’t going to send you into a huge sugar spike.
Fibre Is Your Friend
Fibre is an important component to consider when choosing your carbohydrates. It slows down the rate at which the sugar is metabolized and hits your bloodstream. Foods that are high in fibre tend to result in a slower gradual change in blood glucose levels over time. So, if we look at a fruit vs fruit juice, the whole fruit contains fibre, so you’ll get a slow gradual rise and fall in blood sugar levels. However, in the fruit juice, the fibre has been stripped away in the juicing process, so you’re headed for a fast spike in blood sugar, and subsequently, a steep fall.
How much fibre is enough when looking at packaged products like bread and cereal? Well, there is a good rule of thumb to keep in mind. The amount of fibre per serving should be at least 1/5th of the carbohydrate amount. To check this, have a look at the nutrition label on the package. Now, take your grams of fibre per serving, (7g in the loaf I have on hand), multiply it by 5 (equals 35) and ideally, you’re aiming for the total carbs per serving to be no higher than that number (23g in the case of my example loaf, so it gets the green light).
Another great cereal option is sticking to things like rolled oats, or steel-cut oats. These have tons of health benefits, and you have the added bonus of being able to control what gets added to them, so you can keep the sugar low and fruit-based.
Read the Ingredient List
There are some other good things to watch out for when looking at your lightly processed grain products. Look for the word ‘whole’ or ‘whole grain’ as the first ingredient. If it says enriched or refined, put it back. Always go for whole grain or brown over white, this goes for bread, pasta, rice, crackers and other packaged grain products.
You’ll also want to go over the ingredient list to look for any other unwanted additives. Ideally, you’re looking for a short ingredient list containing only items you recognize. This is where you need to be careful. Many packaged items have a lot added to them. Salt, oil and sugar to make them more palatable and often preservative chemicals to make them shelf stable.
Avoiding Bad Carbs
Now that you know how to recognize good carbs, here are some tips to avoid bad ones, as well as some swaps to help you out when cravings hit.
Don’t Be a Junk Food Junkie
Cutting out junk food is a good start. Chips, fast food, chocolate bars, candy, all of these are high in refined carbs that do absolutely nothing to help you. Take a pass. Instead, make your own versions. Nobody says you can never enjoy a burger or fries ever again. That would be madness! Instead, make your own so you can control what goes in there. French fries made in the oven or an air fryer are awesome and homemade plant-based burgers are always better than some of those sad veggies burgers you see at fast food joints.
Don’t Drink Sugar
Sugary beverages like soda and juice should be left behind. With no fibre present, they send your blood sugar on a roller coaster ride (and not the fun kind). Choosing diet versions of these products does not make them healthy options. Diet version just swap sugar out for artificial sweeteners instead, which is a whole other can of worms you are better off staying far away from. Instead, stick to water, herbal tea or fresh vegetable-based juice as your bevy of choice. If water gets boring for you, try adding things like lemon, lime, mint, cucumber, or even some fruit slices. Infused water can help add a little flavour for the recovering soda addict.
Bake Your Own
Packaged baked goods or even those found at your favourite café are not your best carb choices. They are typically made with refined flours and sugars and aren’t made with good health in mind. One or two of these could quickly exceed your recommended daily sugar intake. Still, everyone loves a little sweet treat now and again. Try your hand at baking some of your own. Many conventional or even vegan recipes you find online can be converted to whole food plant-based versions with just a few simple swaps. Check out this guide for tips on exactly which swaps to make.
Use good quality flour like whole wheat or oat flour (just rolled oats milled down into flour). You can even try out other types of flour like spelt flour, buckwheat flour or chickpea flour. There are tons of options to choose from, just look for ones that are ground whole grains without a ton of additives.
When baking your own treats, you can also control the amount and types of sugar used. Avoid refined white sugar and try using fruits like dates or bananas to sweeten your dessert instead. You can also use some minimally refined sweeteners like date sugar, coconut sugar or maple syrup. These swaps certainly won’t allow you to eat baked goods all day long, but they will be a much healthier treat than the versions you are likely to reach for at the store or coffee shop.
The Bottom Line
When choosing your carbs, stick to those from whole food sources, that are low in sugar and high in fibre. This will help you avoid the pitfalls of refined carbs. Making little swaps from white flour or pasta to whole grain versions can also improve the health of a dish. It’s very difficult to find packaged foods that meet all the standards of a healthy diet. When in doubt, make your own. It’s always better to have full control over what goes into your food. With these tips in mind, you should be armed to make the best choices at the grocery store.
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Related: The Truth About Carbs