Not all carbs are created equal

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By: Mary Ann Lienhart-Cross
lienhart@purdue.edu

Whitney/Flickr

There isn’t any word in the food world that is more misunderstood than the word “carbohydrate.”

When people say that they are not eating carbohydrates, that implies that they are only eating foods in the meat and dairy groups. Talk about an eating plan that is out of balance! Most of us need to eat more vegetables and fruits, and those two food groups are all carbohydrates.

A carbohydrate is one of three macronutrients, along with protein and fat. Carbohydrates provide most of the energy needed in our daily lives — for normal body functions such as heart-beating, breathing and digestion, as well as for physical activity and exercise.

Carbohydrates come from a wide variety of foods, includeing vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and legumes, dairy products and sugars.

High-carbohydrate foods are sometimes the best or even the only food source of many essential nutrients, including fiber, vitamins C and E, the majority of B vitamins, carotenoids and other beneficial phytochemicals, potassium, and trace minerals.

An eating plan low or deficient in any of these nutrients can lead to many health problems, including increased risk for digestive diseases, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Healthier carbs have more food value and include non-starchy vegetables, fruits, lower-fat dairy products, whole grains, brown rice, sweet potatoes or yams, barley, whole grain pasta and dried beans.

Non-starchy vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes and carrots are the lowest in calories, while foods that contain white flour, sugar and fat such as pies, breads and cookies are the highest.

Calorie-dense carbs offer little more than calories and few, if any, important trace minerals. French-fried potatoes, baked goods, candies, snack foods, and pre-sweetened cereals are among them.

High carbohydrate diets are not necessarily fattening, though. Consider that obesity is uncommon in Asia, where most people eat a very high carbohydrate diet. Not all high carbohydrate foods are created equal.

Some whole-grain foods, potatoes, vegetables and fruits actually help you eat fewer calories without feeling hungry. That’s why, if you need to lose weight, you should eat more vegetables and fruits — especially non-starchy vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes and spinach.

You should also eat whole or unprocessed grains. Plan to get two to three servings of nonfat milk or yogurt for your calcium. Choose high protein foods such as beans, nuts, fish, and poultry without the skin, which are good for your heart. When you eat meat, choose lean cuts and keep your daily protein intake to five or six ounces.

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