Why You Need Healthy Carbs

Carbohydrates give your body energy — learn about the different kinds and how much you need.
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Photo by: Miha Krivic

Miha Krivic

Carbs — a group that encompasses sugars, starches and fibers — may get a bad rap, but they’re an essential part of a healthy diet. Carbohydrates are a macronutrient, just like fat and protein, which means you need relatively large amounts of them. Their primary role is to supply your body with energy. They convert easily into glucose, the preferred fuel source for your brain.

Carbohydrates come in different kinds (simple and complex) and sources (both refined and natural). Simple carbohydrates are sugars. Some of these occur as part of whole foods, like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk. Others are straight-up sugar, which often gets added to foods — honey, white sugar, corn syrup, etc. Complex carbohydrates are several sugars linked together to form a starch. Again, these can come from more whole foods (potatoes, beans, whole grains) or refined ones (white flour, pasta) and take a little longer to be digested. Fiber is like starch, except it can’t be broken down — instead it remains intact as it passes through your digestive tract and is important for healthy digestion. Find out more of the health benefits of fiber.

Related: 11 Ways to Get More Fiber in Your Diet

How Much You Need

The Institute of Medicine recommends that you get between 45 and 65 percent of your calories from carbohydrates (that’s the equivalent of 225–325 grams a day on a 2,000-calorie diet). Ideally, those carbohydrates should come from more natural, whole-food sources — fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy products and legumes. These foods are packed with other healthy nutrients, like vitamins, minerals and (in the case of unprocessed plant foods) fiber, which you might miss out on if you eliminate carbs from your diet.

Kerri-Ann is a registered dietitian who writes on food and health trends. Find more of her work at kerriannjennings.com or follow her on Twitter @kerriannrd or Facebook.

Healthy Carbs You Should Be Eating

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Sweet Potatoes

The intense orange color of sweet potatoes is part of what makes these tubers so healthy. They're chock-full of beta carotene, the precursor to vitamin A, which is essential for vision and a healthy immune system. You can drink your daily dose of sweet potatoes in this Sweet Potato-Pear-Cinnamon Juice.

Photo By: Dimitar Dimitrov

Legumes

Lentils and beans contain complex carbohydrates, as well as fiber and protein. These qualities make it a food that fills you up. 

Photo By: VKPH / ThinkStock

Milk

Milk and other dairy products, like yogurt and cottage cheese, contain lactose — a type of sugar. Milk also delivers protein and sodium; the combination of these three components makes it a good beverage after intense workouts, according to research.

Photo By: Osipovfoto / ThinkStock

Fruit

Fruit is the best way to satisfy your sweet tooth. Fruit gets its sweetness from fructose, which is balanced with fiber, water, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals. While low-carb diets tend to shun sweeter fruits, like bananas and mangoes, these are actually a great source of quick energy.

Photo By: Marucyan / ThinkStock

Popcorn

Popcorn is actually a whole grain and it's high in antioxidants. Since the kernels pop up so big, you get 3 1/2 cups in a 1-ounce serving (if you air pop it, that clocks in at 110 calories and 4 grams of fiber).

Photo By: Andrea Astes

Potatoes

Potatoes are an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium and offer several other necessary nutrients, as well as a good dose of fiber — 4 grams in a medium potato. Although potatoes have a high glycemic index, it's rare that you eat them solo; mashing them with milk, topping with cheese and eating the fiber-rich skin takes that glycemic index down, keeping your blood sugar from spiking.

Photo By: Frans Rombout

Whole Grains

Two sources you're probably familiar with are 100-percent whole grain pasta and bread, but explore other truly unprocessed grains — like rye, farro, oats and quinoa — for added health benefits. Each grain offers a slightly different profile: quinoa delivers "complete" protein, while oats are a great way to get cholesterol-lowering soluble fiber.

Photo By: Vitali Dyatchenko

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