Carbohydrates are often portrayed as the enemies of healthy eating, an idea that’s been reinforced by diets like paleo and keto, which rule these macronutrients largely off-limits.
“Carbs belong to a food group that people love and love to hate for so many reasons,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, the New York-based author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. Because they are digested more quickly than protein and fat, carbs can have a more significant effect on blood sugar alone and hunger hormones, leaving you less satisfied if you eat them, she says.
It doesn’t help that on the whole, Americans tend to eat too many of the wrong kind of carbohydrates. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020–2025 from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), carbs should make up between 45 and 65 percent of your diet, primarily from high-quality nutritional sources such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. But when researchers from Tufts University and Harvard University analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, taken from more than 43,000 people over 18 years, they found that 42 percent of the typical American diet comes from low-quality carbohydrates such as refined carbs , added sugars, and starchy vegetables, according to a report published in September 2019 in JAMA.
This is especially troubling given that evidence shows that diets high in refined carbohydrates like cereal grains have been linked to an increased risk for diseases, including cardiovascular disease, per a study published in February 2021 in BMJ.
Giving up carbs entirely isn’t the solution, says Taub-Dix, since these macronutrients are our bodies’ main source of energy. Research has also linked carbs to an increase in serotonin, a brain chemical responsible for mood. “When people want to lose weight, carbs tend to be the first nutrient they slash,” says Taub-Dix. “But there’s no need to avoid them. In fact, I encourage carbs at every meal and snack.”
How? Well, make sure you’re choosing the right ones — complex carbs like whole grains that have nutrients like fiber — and pair them with some lean protein and healthy fat for maximum satisfaction. Here are 10 suggestions to get you started.
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