Carbs: Not just Twinkies and Wonder Bread
Much maligned and a little misunderstood, carbohydrates are much more than white bread, rice and pasta. Truly, carbs come in many, many shapes and sizes, and not all are created equal–some of them are higher quality or have pretty specific uses in one’s diet.
In very general terms, carbohydrates are our best energy sources, providing our brains and central nervous systems with the fuel it needs to carry out its tasks effectively. For basic practical purposes, carbs are often separated into a couple of categories: simple and complex.
Simple carbs are carbs that are broken down quickly in the body, often raising blood sugar rapidly; these kinds of carbs include: sugar, candy, breakfast cereal, white bread, bagels, white rice, etc.
Complex carbs are carbs that typically have more fiber, digest more slowly, raise the blood sugar more slowly and not as high as simple carbs; these also tend to come from less processed food sources such as rolled oats, oat bran, leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, carrots, and whole-grain products.
Basically, we need carbs to function and live, but there are better and worse ways to get them into one’s diet for sure! While both contain approximately 4 calories/gram, there is a huge nutritive difference between Skittles and an apple.
Ideally, we want to get the majority of our carbohydrate needs from veggies and whole grains, and becoming more familiar with the the carbohydrate content of the foods we eat, or want to eat, makes it easier to know how much of which foods we should and can plan into our daily and weekly intakes!
Typically, most non-starchy vegetable contain about 5 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup cooked and one cup raw. Which is pretty much next to nothing! Guidance on consuming veggies is that for good health, it is advised to consume at least 5 servings a day. Eating 5 servings of non-starchy veggies will only yield about 25 grams of carbs consumed, so this is a particularly good way to get a lot of nutrients and volume of food with a pretty low caloric impact, too.
Common Non-starchy Vegetables
- Amaranth or Chinese spinach
- Artichoke hearts
- Baby corn
- Bamboo shoots
- Beans (green, wax, Italian)
- Bean sprouts
- Brussels sprouts
- Cabbage (green, bok choy, Chinese)
- Coleslaw (packaged, no dressing)
- Greens (collard, kale, mustard, turnip)
- Hearts of palm
- Pea pods
- Salad greens (chicory, endive, escarole, lettuce, romaine, spinach, arugula, radicchio, watercress)
- Squash (cushaw, summer, crookneck, spaghetti, zucchini)
- Sugar snap peas
- Swiss chard
- Water chestnuts
- Yard-long beans
In addition to getting some carbs (and fullness!) from veggies, another solid nutritional source of carbs is from whole grain products and legumes (beans and lentils). According to the American Diabetes Association, “For most grains and starches, ½ cup or 1 oz contains 15 g of carbohydrate. A few exceptions are 1 cup of winter squash and pumpkin and ⅓ cup of rice has about 15 grams.”
Best Choices for Whole Grain Foods
“Finding whole grain foods can be a challenge. Some foods only contain a small amount of whole grain but will say it contains whole grain on the front of the package. For all cereals and grains, read the ingredient list and look for the following sources of whole grains as the first ingredient:” ~ American Diabetes Association
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Whole wheat flour
- Whole oats/oatmeal
- Whole grain corn/corn meal
- Brown rice
- Whole rye
- Whole grain barley
- Whole farro
- Wild rice
- Buckwheat flour
And the Beans and Lentils
Black beans, dried peas, lentils are all also great sources of slow-digesting, fiber-rich, complex carbohydrates, and are still roughly in the 15 grams of carbs per 1/2 cup serving category.
So basically, starchy whole grain and vegetable carbs weigh in at roughly 15g/serving (about a 1/2 cup), and non-starchy veggies at 5g/serving (1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw). If we want to do some math, we can then estimate that if we are choosing a serving of complex/starchy carbs and 3 servings of non-starchy veggies at our main meals, we have racked up a 30 grams of carbs in one meal–AND a lot of filling food! If you repeated this approach to another two meals, you’ll have consumed 90 grams of carbs from some seriously nutrient-dense sources, and have well surpassed the basic recommendations
When consumed in a whole, less-processed, veggie-oriented manner,
carbs can be our friends and helpers.
And then there are the treats–the refined flour-based, largely processed foods. There’s a reason we want to keep these items to a minimum. High in calories, fats, sugars, salts and carbs, processed treat foods offer little to no nutrition for their caloric (and health) impact. For example, an 8 oz. bag of salted potato chips can rack up 24g of carbs–and still leave you hungry! These, for me, are the “planned indulgences,” and not really a part of my everyday practical nutrition planning.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road: Now that we have a good sense of how many carbs are in the foods we want to eat, we need to transform our macronutrient carb needs into practical food sources.
What this will look like for each person is a little different, but should start with, and be built around, the less starchy veggies 🙂
A good place to begin is to start figuring out how many carbs you’re getting and from what sources. Start tracking your veggie, whole grain and starchy carb intake.
Questions to ask after you’ve tracked your intake with a food journal or tracker of some sort for a few days: Are you getting your 5 veggies a day (1/2 cup cooked, 1 cup raw or 2 cups leafy greens)? Are you getting your other carb needs from your whole grains/bean/lentil sources?
If yes, make sure your intake is meeting your overall needs. If you’re not getting your recommended servings of greens or you’re consuming too many starchy carbs, then examine where in your day and meals you can trade out some less helpful (simple or processed) carbs and foods for some more nutrient-dense and filling veggies and whole grains!
Other questions to ask: What do you like to eat? How does that fit into your daily and weekly nutrition needs?
“Do the best you can until you know better.Then when you know better, do better.” – Maya Angelou
Keep improving your knowledge and awareness of what you’re eating, keep improving your nutrition, and keep improving your overall quality of life.
We’re in it together! More Practical Nutrition information coming soon….