"What carbs should I eat?" It’s a question I hear often. Sometimes in desperation. Not because of the easy choices—spinach, duh!—but because of the not-so-obvious ones that cause confusion. Foods that have been demonized then celebrated. Or celebrated then demonized. Or that come in so many forms it feels impossible to know the best choice.
That’s why I created this handy, visual carbohydrate guide. It’s designed to help you become more familiar with the carbs that provide nutritional abundance so you can make healthier choices, no matter your knowledge of nutrition. But don’t expect a list of “approved” and “off-limits” foods. Instead, I like to think of foods on a spectrum from “eat more” to “eat some” to “eat less”.
This approach promotes one of the most crucial pillars to my nutritional philosophy that is present throughout all of my nutritional articles: Progress, not perfection.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates do one thing: provide energy. All of it comes from sugar called glucose. No matter what carbohydrate you eat—banana, broccoli, gummi bears, or ice cream—it all turns into glucose during digestion. From there it's preferred fuel (the other being fat) for the body and mind.
The average American's diet is about 48 percent carbs. Those who are classified as obese and overweight don't eat a higher percentage than those who are classified "normal" weight. Think about that for a second.
Carbohydrates have different effects in the human body depending on its structure (type) and its food source (quality), which affect things like:
How quickly and/or easily the carbohydrate is digested and absorbed which is called glycemic load
Which other nutrients are provided along with the carbohydrate source; for example, fat and protein slow down the digestion and/or absorption
Our perceptions of the carbohydrates’ texture and sweetness
Enzyme action in the mouth and gut (microbiome)
You've heard carbohydrate described as either "simple" or "complex". A simple carb has only one type of sugar. That sugar can be a monosaccharide, like glucose or fructose, or it can be a disaccharide, like sucrose, better know as table sugar, which binds fructose and glucose. Complex carbs are usually polysaccharides: long chains of sugar molecules.
Typically, if someone uses the word "complex" in front of "carbohydrate," it's to imply it's superiority to a simple carb. Problem is, an apple is a simple carb, as are lots of healthy, nutritious foods. And white bread, long used as a worst-case example of food processing, is complex.
A better word for complex carb is starch.
Starches are found in most of the food that we eat; tubers (potatoes, sweat potatoes, yams), beans, gluten-free grains (rice, quinoa, oats). Even bananas start out with starch, which turns to glucose and fructose as they ripen. From that list of foods, you can't make any blanket statements about the nutritious qualities of starches. You find them in the most and least processed foods, from pastries and sweets to potatoes.
So if there's no meaningful distinction between simple and complex carbs there must be some better way to look at carbs and to decide how to use them in our diets to get the results we want. As it turns out, there is.
Why should I care?
If your body were the US government, the hormone insulin would be the executive branch. You only think it runs the show because it gets the headlines. That's why insulin gets blamed for every ounce of fat that ends up on your love handles, and gets none of the credit for the important work it does to build your muscle and keep you from overeating.
We know that eating carbohydrates causes insulin to surge, and the more carbs you eat, the higher it goes. When insulin levels are high, your body can't release stored energy from your fat cells, which means you're temporarily more dependent on using glucose for energy. That's not necessarily a problem in the short term. As noted earlier, your brain, neurons, and muscles run on glucose.
If you're healthier, your body will quickly return to a normal state, with glucose successfully cleared from the bloodstream and your metabolism humming along on a mix of fuels that includes more fat than glucose. One way your body achieves that is with insulin. It acts as a powerful brake on your appetite while shuttling the food you just ate into the appropriate places—muscles, liver, fat cells.
Insulin gets a bad rap because of that last part: pushing excess nutrients—both fat and carbs—into fat cells. And it gets too little credit for pushing protein into muscle cells, which is the reward for all of your hard work in the gym. But even that is no big deal.
Fat cells aren't prison cells! Energy goes in and out all the time. It's only when you're eating lower quality and more food than your body can use that you have to worry. That's not because of insulin—it's because you ate too much.
Fiber is the one type of carbohydrate that almost everyone agrees is beneficials. High-fiber foods, like fibrous vegetables, are lower on the glycemic-load spectrum, have relatively few calories, and the calories they have tend to serve a noble purpose.
They either (a.) keep food in your stomach longer—this slows down the surge of glucose in your blood, which in turn mutes the insulin response; or (b.) speed up the transit of food through your system, which gives you bigger and more predictable bowel movements. The older you get, the more you appreciate those.
Soluble fiber is most often found in oats, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, and most fruits and vegetables. It soaks up water in your stomach, forming gel that stays in your stomach longer. Along with helping to keep blood sugar in check, it's been shown to lower cholesterol levels. Insoluble fiber is found in vegetables and gluten-free grains. Fermentable fiber promotes the growth of "good" bacteria in your colon, and is also inhibits the formation of tumors. Non-fermentable fiber speeds up the transit time of your meals.
The long-term benefits of fiber are impressive. Studies show it protects against colon cancer (the 3rd largest cause of cancer death in the US). Increased fiber consumption reduces fasting blood-sugar levels in people with diabetes. It also reduces blood pressure in people with hypertension. On top of all of that, fiber consumption has been undoubtably linked to weight control.
Fiber offers "negative" calories: The more fiber in your diet, the less energy you can metabolize from the other foods you eat. This is in addition to the "bulking effect", which increases both satiation (your stomach feeling full faster) and satiety (you're less hungry between meals).
1. Ditch the old carb mantra of simple carbs are "bad" and complex carbs are "good". Instead, think of carbohydrates more as:
Non-starchy, low-glycemic carbs (Eat more)
Starchy, medium-glycemic carbs (Eat some)
Refined, ultra-processed, high-glycemic carbs (Eat less)
2. Quality always determines function. Slow-burning, Low-glycemic carbs are digested and absorbed much slower while the high-glycemic, low-quality carbs are digested very quickly.
3. Carbohydrates do not make you fat...
Too many Low-Quality, High-Glycemic, Ultra-Processed carbohydrates do!
4. Unrefined, unprocessed, High-Quality, Low-Glycemic carbohydrates sources:
Slow the release of sugars into the bloodstream and help prevent the excess insulin release that leads to insulin resistance
Reduce triglycerides and improve cholesterol
Offer lots of vitamin and minerals as well as increase how well you absorb them
Offer lots of fiber that help you absorb all the vitamins and minerals while also providing good gut bacteria and digestion
Enhance both satiation (how full you feel when you eat) and satiety (feeling less hungry between meals)
Assist in weight management, greater mental clarity and memory, improved energy levels
So, what carbs should I eat?
Repeat after me...
Eat slow carbs, not no carbs.
Slow-burning, low-glycemic vegetables should be the basis of your diet. These are truly unlimited foods! Include low-glycemic fruit of various colors; berries are the best. A good rule of thumb is the darker or more vibrant the color the better.
Fill your plate with:
Anything in the cruciferous family such as broccoli, Brussel sprouts, bok choy, cauliflower, asparagus, chard, and more
Any deep, leaf green such as spinach, kale, mustard greens, collard greens, micro greens
Alliums such as garlic, shallots, onions
Peppers of various colors and flavors
Carrots of various colors
Organic stone fruit like plums, peaches, nectarines, cherries, and others (fresh or frozen)
Organic oranges, grapefruit, tangerines, and other citrus fruits
Dark berries like blueberries, cherries, blackberries, and raspberries (fresh or frozen)
Eat whole grains in moderation. Measure servings and stick with 1/2 to 1 cup or less per serving.
Gluten-free grains such as quinoa, rice (brown, black, wild, red), amaranth, buckwheat, oats
Potatoes: sweet, purple, red, or white fingerling
Sourdough bread (phytic acid makes the bread easier for us to digest and absorb minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, iron and zinc) or sprouted grain bread such as Ezekiel bread
Higher Glycemic fruits such as bananas and figs
Fiber-rich legumes such as red, French or regular lentils, chickpeas, green and yellow split peas, soybeans, pinto, black, navy, and other beans
Stay away from (or severely limit in some cases) gluten-containing whole grains including wheat, barley, rye, spelt, and kamut
Any and all fruit juice
Most dried fruits that are often coated with sugar
Avoid refined sugars, refined carbs and highly processed, factory-manufactured foods—especially white bread and every kind of cereal known to mankind
Many processed foods will have health claims such as “low carb,” “no sugar added,” or “high fiber” such as granola, health bars, boxed baked goods, crackers, and chips
Always remember that quality is king! Make gradual adjustments based on how certain carbohydrate sources make you feel or perform—I always suggest keeping a food journal in the notes section of your phone so you can start to see patterns (good or bad). And always remember that it is about progress, not perfection.