Coach’s Corner: What are Healthy Carbs?
February 13, 2023
Are You Afraid of Carbs?
Carbohydrates are a frequent topic of conversation in coaching sessions. My clients often want to know:
- How many and what kinds of carbs should I eat?
- If I remove processed carbs from my diet, won’t I experience low energy?
- Should I avoid carbs?
The answer to that question relies on their goals, preferences, underlying health conditions, and doctor recommendations. However, if our goal is to optimize our health, there are some general guidelines that we can consider in choosing the kinds of carbs we eat on a regular basis.
There is much to be seen online about the “evils of carbs”, which can muddy the nutritional waters of general health. So today I’d like to talk about carbohydrates (carbs for short) and clear up some of the confusion around this healthful food category.
What are Healthy Carbs?
First, a Definition: What are Carbohydrates?
Let’s take a trip down memory lane to biology class…
- Carbohydrates are molecules mostly found in plants, but also in dairy products and honey.
- The dry weight of plants is mostly carbohydrate from cell walls.
- While vegetables and fruits that have sugars and starches have more carbs, all vegetables and fruits have cell walls, therefore all vegetables have carbohydrates.
Glucose and starch are carbs which are quickly digested, causing a faster and higher elevation in blood sugar. However, the indigestible carbs such as those from cell walls or resistant starch are digested more slowly.
How to Choose the Carbs for Your Plate
We don’t need to use an app to decide what kinds of carbs to eat.
Unless you’re on a carnivore diet, an ideal plate is at least half carbs. You heard me correctly – half of a healthy plate (by volume) should be carbs – in the form of non-starchy vegetables.
The kind of carbohydrates we choose are vitally important to our health. I mentioned the idea of half a plate of non-starchy vegetables in a previous blog post, so I won’t belabor this point here.
Navigating the Carb Question
Following are some guidelines around carbohydrates that might be helpful if you are seeking to optimize your health.
Green Light Carbs
Ideally, at least half of our plate would be filled with colorful, nutritionally dense, non-starchy vegetables. These can be leafy greens, colorful vegetables such as peppers, tomatoes, and summer squash, or cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage.
While there is much debate on nearly every topic in nutrition, this is one on which (almost) all experts agree. Eating half of our plate in non-starchy vegetables promotes health, healing, disease-prevention, and longevity.
Yellow Light Carbs
These carbs retain the form in which they grew and not overly processed, but include more sugars and starches than the category above. They include: starchy vegetables such as butternut squash, potatoes, and carrots; whole intact grains such as oats, wheat, barley, and quinoa; legumes such as lentils and black beans; and all fruits. These yellow light carbs might make up one fourth of your plate 1-3 times a day depending on your goals, preferences, activity level, and metabolic health. These carbohydrates, especially the colorful ones, still have many quality nutrients that are worthy of some space on our plate, but how much is a very personalized decision.
While the green-light carbs get a, well, green light from nearly all nutrition experts, you’ll find a lot more controversy over these more starchy, sugary plants. Most moderate-minded nutrition experts agree that they can, and should, definitely be a part of a healthful diet. However, some people might have a more significant glucose spike when eating these foods.
Red Light Carbs
This category is actually what many people think of when they hear the word “carbs”.
These are the most processed category of carbohydrate. Ever seen a bagel bush or a cookie tree? If you can’t imagine a food growing in nature, then it’s probably a processed carb. This includes anything made of flour, sugar, or refined grains. These would include bread, pasta, cookies, cakes, breakfast cereal, and candy. Certainly, these foods are a part of our culture, and depending on your goals, you may not need to cut them out completely. I’m certainly NOT saying that we should never eat bread, enjoy a piece of cake, or that we can never have a bun with our burger. They are enjoyable and are often used in celebrations or traditions. However, if our goal is optimal health, we would be wise to choose them sparingly.
Each time processed carbs take up space on our plate, they reduce the valuable real estate available for nutritionally-dense food.
The green and yellow-light foods above not only provide healthy carbs, but they also provide intact fiber to support gut health, micronutrients to turn on health and healing in your body, and reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.
I hope this article is helpful in clearing up some confusion around carbs and encourages you to add more of the green light category to your plate! This is the category of carbs of which most Americans eat the least. If you would like to learn more about nutrition and functional medicine, check out our website for many more articles on these topics.
Since 2010, Richmond Integrative and Functional Medicine has been helping people to restore their health and hope with an integrative approach to conventional and alternative medicine that’s entirely science-backed. We at RIFM believe everyone is made for health. We offer a comprehensive, in-person patient membership program to ensure you get access to the care you need to thrive.
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