Contrary to popular belief, carbs are not the enemy.
If you’re even remotely health-conscious, you’re probably aware that there are lots of opinions about carbs. Low-carb diets and no-carb diets are everywhere, and they’re touted as the next best thing since sliced bread. Pun intended. Amidst the fad diets and differing opinions, you may be left wondering, how many carbs should you eat? Should you eat any at all? There are plenty of carb-rich foods out there that you can and should eat daily. Carbs are a source of energy for our brains and our muscles, and they pack a solid punch when it comes to our health.
The US Dietary Reference Intake for carbohydrates is 130 g daily. This is the minimum amount needed to provide adequate glucose as fuel for our brains (a higher minimum intake of carbs is recommended for pregnant and breastfeeding women).
Nutrition experts recommend that approximately half of our daily calories come from carbohydrates. For a person consuming 2,000 calories per day, 50% of calories from carbohydrates would equate to 250 g of carbohydrates per day. If we break that up between three meals and two snacks, we’d need about 60 g of carbohydrates per meal and 30 g of carbohydrates per snack.
To fuel your body in the best way, you’ll have to make sure you’re picking carbs that have a high nutrient density. The more vitamins, minerals, and fiber a food has per calorie, the more nutrient dense it is.
For example, fruit and fruit juice are both carbs. But 8 oz of no-pulp orange juice has about 110 calories, 27 g carb, and 60 mg of vitamin C, and very little fiber. We need to squeeze about three oranges to get 8 oz of fresh juice. Consuming — rather than juicing — those three oranges would result in the same number of calories, the same amount of carbs, and the same amount of vitamin C intake as the 8 oz of juice, with the addition of about 9 g of fiber (and no added sugar). Therefore, oranges are more nutrient dense than orange juice because of added fiber.
Nutrient density applies not just to fiber, but to all the vitamins and minerals we need in our diet as well. The more nutrient-dense a food, the better. When choosing between two carbohydrates, a quick review of their food labels will help determine the best product. Better yet, foods that don’t come with labels — such as whole fruits, vegetables, and lean meats — are likely to be the most nutritious of all.
Add these 10 nutrient-dense carbs to your grocery list:
Whole wheat bread
Whole grain pasta
All carbs are not created equal. To maximize your nutrition and help your body stay energized throughout the day, consider these tips for adding nutrient-dense carbs to your diet:
Start your day with high-fiber cereal. Oatmeal with fruit and nuts is a great choice. Here are a few additional fiber-filled breakfast options!
Always choose whole grain breads and crackers. Look at the first ingredient. If it says, “whole” or “whole grain,” that works. If it doesn’t, put it back — it’s not whole grain.
Include a serving of legumes in your daily diet. Instead of meat, opt for beans or lentils as a source of carbs and protein.
Consume at least two different types of fruit every day. Apples, mangoes, and blueberries are great sources of nutrient-dense carbs.
Don’t shy away from starchy vegetables. Sweet potatoes, lima beans, and peas, for example, are a good source of a wide variety of nutrients.
Snack on nut butters and hummus. They contain carbs, fat, and protein as well as micronutrients. Eat them with raw veggies for a healthy snack.
Carbs are often mislabeled as “unhealthy,” but that’s not necessarily the case. Well-chosen carbs can add a lot of nutrients to our diets, and a lot of enjoyment to our eating. Instead of avoiding carbs, enjoy them as part of your healthy eating plan.
About the author
Julie Cunningham is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, a Certified Diabetes Care and Education Specialist, and an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. She is owner of Julie Cunningham Nutrition, LLC in Hendersonville, NC. You can find her recently published book, "30 Days to Tame Type 2 Diabetes," on Amazon.com.