Although carbohydrates get a bad rap for causing your blood glucose to rise too quickly, not all carbs are created equal. While a diet high in refined carbohydrates and added sugar (such as white rice, white flour products, sugar drinks, and sweets) is linked to an increased risk of diseases, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease, some carbohydrate-rich foods are incredibly nutritious and can protect your health.
Here are 10 high-carb foods you should keep in your diet, and simple, healthy ways to enjoy them.
Brown rice is a gluten-free whole grain that is rich in antioxidants. Research has shown that eating brown rice helps reduce factors that increase the risk of developing heart disease, including high blood lipid levels, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
One study in 40 non-menopausal women with overweight or obesity found that brown rice consumption reduced blood markers of inflammation, including C-reactive protein, and other heart disease risk factors.
Compared to white rice, brown rice has been shown to help prevent weight gain. A 2019 study in Japanese workers found that white rice eaters gained more than 6.5 pounds over a one-year period and brown rice eaters gained no weight eating the same amount of rice.
Brown rice can be enjoyed in both sweet and savory dishes. At breakfast, combine brown rice with fruit, nuts, and cinnamon, or add it to a breakfast scramble made with veggies and eggs, tofu, or chickpeas. You can also use brown rice as the base for grain bowls or add it to salads, soups, sushi, and stir fries. For a southwest dish, combine brown rice with beans and/or corn, veggies, and avocado. Brown rice can also be incorporate into treats, like brown rice pudding or crispy puffed brown rice crackers.
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According to a 2018 research review, consuming too little whole fruit represents a serious global health threat.
Eating fiber-rich whole fruits is associated with long-term weight management and protection against a number of chronic diseases and health conditions, such as:
- Digestive issues
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Metabolic syndrome (which means having three or more of the following conditions: a large waistline, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high triglycerides, low “good” HDL cholesterol)
- Colorectal and lung cancers
Eating whole fruits has also been shown to:
- Improve the odds of successful aging (aging without worsening physical and mental functions or chronic diseases)
- Reduce the severity of asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Enhance psychological well-being, including a reduced risk of depression
- Enhance bone density in children and adults
- Improve skin health, including a reduced risk of seborrheic dermatitis
- Reduce the severity of autism spectrum disorder
According to the CDC, the recommended intake for fruit is 1.5-2 cups per day. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also emphasizes choosing whole fruits, which can be fresh or frozen.
Incorporate seasonal fruits and an array of colors and types into daily meals and snacks. Blend fruits into smoothies, add berries or kiwi to oatmeal, snack on a sliced apple or banana paired with nuts or nut butter, toss pear slices into a salad, add mango or pineapple to slaw and incorporate citrus to stir fries. For a healthy dessert dip, mix fresh fruit into melted dark chocolate.
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As far as sweeteners go, pure maple syrup stands out. A 2022 research review concluded that maple syrup is preferable to refined sugar thanks to its high concentration of phenolic antioxidants and minerals, which include relevant amounts of potassium, calcium, zinc, and manganese.
Maple syrup is also a source of a prebiotic called inulin. Prebiotics help feed beneficial gut bacteria, enhance nutrient absorption, improve gut barrier health and immune function, and reduce the risk of allergies.
However, maple syrup is still categorized as a type of added sugar, so enjoy it in moderation. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that women limit the intake of added sugar, including maple syrup, to no more than 100 calories worth or 6 teaspoons per day, and men to no more than 150 calories worth or 9 teaspoons per day.
You can use maple syrup to sweeten coffee, tea, oatmeal, or overnight oats. Maple syrup can also be used as an ingredient in salad dressing, stir fry sauces, granola, candied nuts, baked beans, roasted vegetables, or in desserts like chia pudding or chocolate truffles.
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Another gluten-free member of the whole grain family, millet is rich in nutrients and antioxidants. Research shows that millet can help improve your digestive system’s well-being, reduce cholesterol, protect against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. It can also increase your energy levels and support your muscles. Apart from being rich in fiber, millet also provides protein, and minerals, including phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, and iron.
Millet can be enjoyed as a hot breakfast porridge or in any way you would use quinoa or brown rice. Add it to salads, bowls, chili, stews, and soups, or combine it with vegetables as a stuffing for bell peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, or zucchini. Or incorporate millet to energy balls, pancakes, cornbread, and baked goods.
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In addition to being a nutrient-rich, gluten-free whole grain, oats have been shown to contain compounds that uniquely support immune function. These include a type of fiber called beta-glucans, minerals (copper, iron, selenium, and zinc), polyphenolic antioxidants, and a type of protein called glutamine.
A 2021 research review, concluded that these oat-based nutrients help optimize the immune system’s response to infections, including cold and flu viruses, and support a healthy gut microbiome, which also plays a role in immune function.
The beta-glucan fiber in oat grains is also the major active compound proven to help lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar.
You can blend oats into smoothies or enjoy hot oatmeal or chilled overnight oats. Rolled oats can also be used as a garnish, topping, or crust. You can also incorporate oats into energy balls, pancakes, bread, and baked goods. To make a simple crumble for warmed fruit, combine rolled oats with almond butter, cinnamon, and a touch of maple syrup.
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Potatoes are important sources of several nutrients, including fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, iron, and thiamin. They also contain multiple antioxidants. Among fruits and vegetables, potatoes have the third highest total phenolic content (a type of antioxidant) after oranges and apples.
Potatoes also contain a unique type of carbohydrate called resistant starch (RS), which increases significantly when potatoes have been cooked and cooled. RS gets fermented in the gut, which produces compounds called short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are compounds linked to improved physical and mental wellbeing. Research points to a connection between RS and the prevention and control of diseases, including diabetes, colon cancer, and obesity.
Potatoes have also been shown to be more satiating than other starchy carbs, such as pasta and rice, another boon for weight management.
Enjoy potatoes baked, oven roasted, sautéed, or cooked in foil on the grill. Top baked potatoes with a variety of healthy toppings, including vegetarian chili, hummus, tomato sauce, vegan pesto, guacamole, olive tapenade, herbed tahini, or vegetables sautéed in extra virgin olive oil.
Pulses, which include all types of beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas, are rich in carbs and also provide fiber, protein, and important vitamins and minerals, including: calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, and B vitamins.
A 2021 research review concluded that pulses could play a key role in eliminating the underconsumption of fiber and potassium, while helping to support healthy weight management.
Pulses are also rich in antioxidants. Consuming 0.5 a cup of cooked pulses per day can increase overall nutrient intake, reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, and protect against heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes.
You can use pulses in place of meat in soups, stews, chili, salads, and tacos. You can also puree them into hummus or white dip, or serve pulses as side dishes, like herbed lentils and oven roasted chickpeas.
Quinoa is categorized as a whole grain, although it’s technically a pseudo-cereal because its seeds have a similar nutritional composition to other cereal grains.
A 2017 study looked at quinoa intake and outcomes in people with obesity. People who ate 50 grams (about 1.7 ounces) of quinoa daily experienced reduced triglyceride levels, compared to a control group that didn’t eat quinoa, and another that only ate 25 grams (g) of dry quinoa per day. This group also saw a 70% reduction in the prevalence of metabolic syndrome.
Another 2017 study randomly assigned people with prediabetes to consume either quinoa or a placebo. After 28 days, the participants eating quinoa experienced reductions in body mass index (BMI), fasting blood sugar, and levels of HbA1c (a measure of how well blood sugar has been controlled over the previous three-month period). People in the quinoa group also noted improvements in satiety.
Like millet and oats, quinoa can be enjoyed as a hot breakfast porridge topped with nuts or seeds and fruit, or added to pancakes, or breakfast scrambles. Add cooked quinoa to smoothies, salads, and soups, or serve it as a side dish, mixed with vegetables and herbs. Quinoa also makes a nutritious addition to cookies, muffins, and other baked goods, or dark chocolate bark.
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Despite their name, sweet potatoes aren’t actually a type of potato. Potatoes are tubers and sweet potatoes are a type of root vegetable, but both are healthy forms of carbohydrates.
Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds and are known to help prevent cancer and metabolic disorders, protect the liver and heart, and improve neurological and memory capacity and intestinal barrier function.
Sweet potatoes provide fiber and an extensive range of micronutrients, including minerals (manganese, copper, potassium, and iron) and vitamins (B vitamins, and vitamins A, C and E). Purple sweet potatoes are also high in anthocyanin antioxidants. Anthocyanin rich sweet potatoes have been closely associated with a lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and improved cognitive function.
Use slices of oven roasted sweet potato in place of bread and top with nut butter or mashed avocado. Add cubed sweet potatoes to salads, soups, and stews. You can also blend sweet potato puree into smoothies, oatmeal, energy balls, and healthy desserts, such as a simple sweet potato pudding made with plant milk, maple syrup, and spices.
The amount of in carbohydrates in a serving of vegetables varies. One cup of raw spinach provides just 1 gram of carbohydrates compared to 6.04 g in a cup of raw broccoli and 13 g in one cup of raw beets. Nevertheless, vegetables contribute to your total daily carbohydrate intake and loading your plate with them offers great health benefits.
Much of the research has looked at health outcomes related to the consumption of fruits and vegetables combined. For example, a 2021 research review that looked at 26 previously published studies concluded that a higher intake of fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower total death risk and cause-specific death risk (such as death due to heart disease or cancer) for both men and women. The data showed that the lowest risk of death was tied to five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Above that amount, death risk did not decrease further.
Most vegetables are low in calories compared to the same size portions of foods from other food groups. They’re also rich in nutrients like fiber and potassium.
In addition to eating the right amount each day, consuming a wide variety of vegetables has been shown to improve overall diet quality, improve brain function, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Eat an array of vegetable colors and types and buy or grow seasonal vegetables to expand variety. Aim for one cup of veggies in every breakfast, lunch, and dinner meal, or build them into snacks.
Why Do You Need Carbs?
When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, which gets absorbed from your digestive tract into your bloodstream as blood sugar. Blood glucose or blood sugar is the main source of energy used to power the activity of your cells, tissues, and organs.
Depending on your age, sex, health, physical activity level, and weight management goals, 45% to 65% of your calories can come from carbohydrates to meet your body’s fuel needs. At 2,000 calories per day, that would be a minimum of 225 g and a maximum of 325 g of carbohydrate per day, or 180 g to 260 g at 1,600 calories.
If you’re wondering about carbohydrates and weight loss, a 2022 research review that looked at 61 previously published studies did not show that low‐carbohydrate weight‐reducing diets are superior to balanced‐carbohydrate weight‐reducing diets. In fact, there was little or no difference in either weight reduction or heart disease risk factors over the short (three to eight and a half months) or long term (one to two years).
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Whole food carbohydrates provide your body with fiber, antioxidants, and a range of vitamins, minerals, and health benefits, including weight management.
For personalized guidance regarding the type and amount of carbohydrates that’s best for your body’s needs, speak with your personal healthcare provider.