Carbs (aka carbohydrates) are always a big topic at Dr. Lipman’s practice. When we meet with patients, we help them find the best diet for their individual needs, but there is almost always one point in common: eat fewer carbs. Carbs are one of the three main macronutrients — carbs, proteins, fats — and we need them to keep us healthy, but as we see with fad diets, the information out there can be confusing. We’ve all seen it: fats are bad! No, carbs are the best! High protein is the way to go! So, what’s a person to do? To start, let’s get our carbs under control.
What’s a carb, anyway?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients — carbs, proteins, fats — which are the main components of the foods we eat. Carbs break down into sugars (technically sugars, starches, and fiber are all considered carbs) and can be further categorized as simple or complex. Simple and complex carbs can be explained by how quickly the food breaks down in your body. Imagine table sugar (quickly) vs. brown rice (more time). Carbs provide the body’s most easily accessible energy source, glucose, which is the reason we crave them when we are tired or run-down.
Which foods contain carbs?
Any food that contains sugar or breaks down into sugar has carbs. Sweet things like candy, soda, cake, and even fruit seem obvious, right? But unsweet foods like bread, pasta, grains, beans, dairy, and starchy vegetables also break down into sugars.
Here’s what you need to know about different sources of carbs.
Dairy (lactose is sugar and sugar is a carb!)
Best: Whole-fat dairy products
Watch for: Low-fat or no-fat products
Best: Whole fruits, especially berries, green apples, and grapefruit
Watch for: Tropical fruits, dried fruits, and fruit juice
Best: Whole, gluten-free grains*
Watch for: Processed gluten-free or gluten grains in bread, pasta, crackers, cereal, and corn
Best: Whole legumes such as beans, peas, lentils*
Watch for: Processed legumes, such as chickpea pasta, hummus, and soy products
Best: Vegetables that grow above ground, such as greens, cucumbers, and tomatoes
Watch for: Starchy vegetables that grow below ground, such as potatoes, beets, and parsnips. (Want an awesome visual depiction of low- vs. high-carb vegetables? Check out this article.)
Best: I can’t think of any!
Watch for: All of them! Candy, cake, soda, protein bars, energy drinks, processed foods, ice cream, etc.
*Note: If you are eating a low-carb diet for health reasons (which is almost always a good idea!), grains and legumes should be avoided or kept to a minimum depending on how you process carbs. If you aren’t sure how you are processing carbs, check out “Are you carb intolerant? Here’s what you should ask yourself.”
With this basic knowledge, we can go forth into the world and make the best decisions we can on a regular basis. If you are a healthy person, is eating one ice cream cone going to kill you? No! But by understanding the “goods” vs. the “bads,” we can try to eat the most nutrient-dense carbs available on an 80/20 or 90/10 meal plan (aka most of the time).