If nutrition were like high school, healthy carbs would be that misunderstood kid with a bad reputation and a heart of gold. “People think they’ll gain excess weight by eating carbs,” Nancy Z. Farrell, M.S., R.D.N., founder of Farrell Dietitian Services, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells SELF. “There is a tendency to group foods either into a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ column…but food and nutrition are much more complex than people realize.”
In addition to being delicious, carbohydrates are essential for proper functioning. “Carbohydrates supply our cells with glucose, which gives us energy for both brain power and to fuel our muscles,” Farrell says.
With that said, there’s a difference between refined carbohydrates—white breads and pastas, cookies, and candy—and unrefined carbs that you’re consuming in their healthiest, most whole forms. “Carbs can’t all be lumped together,” Abby Langer, R.D. and owner of Abby Langer Nutrition in Toronto, tells SELF. “Complex carbs are released much more slowly into the bloodstream and will give you lasting, sustainable energy.” Point being, they’re very much worth eating.
Here, five types of healthy carbs registered dietitians don’t want you to fear.
Many people have come around to the beauty of sweet potatoes as a lower-carb substitute for things like toast. But regular ol’ potatoes are still demonized for no good reason. “Potatoes get such a bad rap,” Farrell says. In reality, they’re loaded with vitamin C and potassium and are even an unlikely source of protein, she explains. Plus, if you chow down on a spud with its skin on, you get some fiber, which helps you feel satisfied and keeps your digestion moving smoothly along.
“I refuse to say anything bad about the potato,” Langer says. Like a lot of foods, the healthiness of this pick comes down to preparation. “If you leave them in their most whole state—I’m not saying to eat a raw potato, but bake or roast them, and don’t pour things like cheese sauce all over them—they’re still healthy,” Langer says.
Obviously, sometimes a cheese-soaked potato is just what you need, and that’s cool, too. But isn’t it nice to know you don’t have to always think of a potato as an indulgence?
2. Whole grains
Refined grains have gone through processing to remove components, like bran, that house healthy benefits such as fiber, Farrell explains. “It’s throwing out the good stuff and making a quickly digested carbohydrate that’s going to spike your blood sugar,” Langer adds.
That’s why if you have health in mind, whole grains are the better pick. “There’s no reason why people should be avoiding these,” Langer says. From oatmeal to wheat berries to barley to farro to millet to air-popped popcorn and beyond, the potential picks are endless.
“If you don’t eat grains, it’s not like you’re going to be unhealthy. But it’s one thing to avoid them because you don’t like them and another to avoid them because you think they’re going to make you gain weight,” Langer says, going on to reiterate that “there’s nothing inherently bad about healthy carbohydrates.”
3. Super sweet fruits like bananas, melons, and grapes
Their sugar content is what makes them taste so good—but that doesn’t in turn mean they’re not good for you.
“Why would I ever discriminate against some types of fruit when most people don’t eat enough of it to begin with?” Langer says. “Yes, these are sweet—all fruit has fructose in it. But drilling it down to which fruits are too sugary is useless.”
Instead, enjoy the recommended 1½ to 2 servings of fruit a day, and just watch your portions if you’re making something like a smoothie, where it’s easy to sneak in a lot of sugar without realizing it (even natural sugar is still sugar, after all). “If you’re making a smoothie, limit the fruit to ½ or ¾ cup,” Langer says, and be sure to include a source of protein to help the sweetness digest more slowly.
“A lot of people try to avoid legumes like chickpeas, lentils, and black beans because they think they’re high in carbohydrates,” Langer says. “While that may be true, they’re also an excellent source of fiber and protein.”
As in, they’re great to sprinkle on a lunchtime salad for an energy wave to help you coast through the afternoon. Farrell also recommends enjoying them in tacos, stews, soups, chili, casseroles, alongside some eggs—really, there are so many options.
5. Starchy vegetables like corn and peas
Instead of counting these as normal vegetables, Langer thinks of them as starches. “But there’s nothing bad about them,” she says, adding that peas contain protein and corn provides fiber, making them absolutely worth dishing onto your plate. All this means is that when thinking of your portions in a meal, you can think of corn and peas as belonging to a different category than vegetables like kale and carrots.
“If you go through summer and don’t eat cob of sweet corn because you’re afraid, that’s a tragedy,” Langer says.
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