These days, carbohydrates (carbs) are the most misunderstood macronutrient of the three. In the current era of the ketogenic diet, carbs are misconceived as the macronutrient you should avoid at all costs, but your body and brain require carbs to function optimally. In fact, the USDA/DHHS Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends that we consume anywhere from 45% to 65% of our total energy for the day in the form of carbs.
“There's an automatic negative perception around carbs, just as there is an automatic positive association with protein,” says Rachael Hartley, R.D., registered dietitian and author of Gentle Nutrition. “Because of this perception, many people think that eating healthy means limiting carbohydrates, when in reality, carbs are the body's preferred source of fuel, and a valuable source of vitamins, minerals and fiber.”
Editor's note: Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to go on a diet or change your eating habits, we invite you to gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
Scientifically-speaking, carbs are sugar molecules that get broken down into glucose or blood sugar to provide energy to cells, tissues and organs. Sources of carbs are grains, starchy vegetables, dairy and fruit. Generally, there are two types of carbs – complex carbs (found in foods like whole grains and starchy veggies) and simple (found in refined white grains and fruit). All carbs, including the less nutritious ones, offer energy and nutrients, and can fit into a balanced intake. “All foods serve a purpose, and even 'unhealthy' carbohydrate foods can provide benefits," says Harley.
When putting together this list of high carb foods, however, we looked for nutrient-dense carbohydrates packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber. Many of these choices contain naturally occurring sugar that will help keep your energy up. These are the best healthy carbs, according to dietitians:
Research has linked consuming oats, which are a source of complex carbs, with lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels. Plus, the prebiotic fiber found in oats help fuel your body’s probiotics, the friendly bacteria that lives in your GI tract.
“I love oatmeal because it makes a tasty and satisfying breakfast, and also contains cholesterol-lowering, gut-friendly soluble fiber,” says Hartley.
You can include oats in your intake in a variety of ways, including overnight oats, and warm oatmeal topped with fruit and nuts or nut butter.
RELATED: 17 Overnight Oats Recipes That Practically Make Themselves
All types of berries are good sources of complex carbs and are packed with nutrients. For example, blueberries are a good source of fiber and vitamin C, and they offer other essential micronutrients like potassium and manganese.
Research also shows daily consumption of blueberries and strawberries, which contain high levels of antioxidants, may be linked to positive effects, like improving inflammation, insulin sensitivity, blood pressure and cognitive health.
Whether you opt for fresh, frozen or dried, berries offer an easy way to add pops of sweetness to meals and snacks. Try mixing them into your pancake batter or oatmeal at breakfast, including them in salads at lunch or dinner, or pairing them with nuts and chocolate for a balanced, tasty snack.
Potatoes are nutrient powerhouses — they can pack up to 4 grams of plant-based protein, nearly 5 grams of fiber and 25% of the potassium you need for the day. If you are wondering whether you should eat white or sweet potatoes, the answer is to eat the potatoes you prefer.
“Lots of people think white potatoes are unhealthy or don't contain any nutrients, but they're actually rich in the antioxidant vitamin C, potassium, and contains a nice dose of fiber,” says Hartley.
Certain preparation methods are more nutritious than others (grilled vs. fried, for example), but all potatoes can fit into a balanced intake.
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Within the carb category, bread may get the worst rap but it can be an easy way to meet your carb needs and benefit from other essential nutrients. All breads contain varying amounts of fiber and micronutrients like calcium and magnesium, and can be a part of a balanced diet. Whole grain versions (whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel, etc.) offer more nutrients than their refined, white counterparts.
“For athletes and other active people I work with, having refined grains before a sports event is a great choice for providing a quick source of easily digestible energy,” explains Hartley. Or, if you have a stomach bug, a piece of white bread is likely to be more tolerable and settling than a fibrous slice of whole wheat or rye.
Toast a slice of your favorite bread with breakfast, dip a slice in some good quality olive oil or try one of these delicious lunch sandwiches.
With a texture and shape somewhere between couscous and rice, farro is a highly nutritious ancient grain and nutty-tasting complex carb.
Like most grains, farro is a good source of fiber, offering about 5 grams per serving (1/4 cup dry or ½ cup cooked), or 18% of the recommended daily value (DV). Plus, it provides plant-based protein, offering about 6 grams per serving.
Farro also supplies micronutrients like non-heme iron (the type of iron found in plant-based sources) — 2 mg or 10% of the DV — per serving. You can try farro as a carb source in a burrito bowl, tossed in a salad or as a side with fish and veggies.
As a member of the squash family, pumpkin is a starchy nutrient-dense veggie. Other than offering complex carbohydrates, pumpkin offers the antioxidant beta-carotene, an important antioxidant for your vision and skin.
One cup of plain pumpkin purée also provides essential nutrients like fiber, vitamin A, potassium and non-heme iron.
Try mixing ½ cup into plain, Greek yogurt (with cinnamon, nutmeg and a drizzle of honey) for a protein-rich snack and enjoy it this holiday season in pumpkin pie.
RELATED: 44 Easy Pumpkin Recipes That Are Perfect for Fall
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Like common misconceptions about potatoes, there are similar ones regarding rice. While brown rice is more nutrient-dense than white rice, white rice still offers health benefits.
“While I love the nutty flavor of brown rice in many dishes, white rice is a favorite and a staple food in many cultures,” explains Hartley. “White rice is inexpensive, easy on the digestive system, fortified with vitamins and minerals and only has one less gram of fiber than brown rice.”
On that note, more nutrient-dense carbs like brown rice and whole wheat pasta contain slightly more fiber than their refined counterparts like white rice and pasta. Fiber can help keep you full and satisfied, but it’s important to stay hydrated while increasing fiber intake slowly and gradually to let your body adjust.
”Just like potatoes, your decision of which rice to include should be based on what you enjoy the most (and that may change depending on your mood and what else you are eating)," Hartley says.
Dates are sweet, dried fruits and carb sources with essential nutrients, including fiber and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
Just two Medjool dates provide 3.2 grams of fiber, which is about 12% of DV. Like oats, dates contain soluble fiber, which helps to lower LDL cholesterol. They also contain insoluble fiber which helps keep the digestive system running smoothly.
Dates offer important micronutrients like calcium, B vitamins, non-heme iron, potassium, copper and magnesium. Enjoy them chopped up in salads or rice dishes, or as a satisfying snack filled with nut butter.
Along with other sources of dairy, yogurt is a carb choice that provides lactose, a naturally occurring sugar. While there are yogurts higher in protein than others (like Greek yogurt), all yogurts offer important nutrients aside from carbs.
Yogurt is a good source of bone-protecting calcium and vitamin D, and gut-balancing probiotics. One thing you'll want to be mindful of is sugar in yogurt. You should try to opt for Greek yogurts, which are naturally lower in sugar and higher in protein than regular yogurt.
Similar to our other carb picks, the best rule of thumb to follow when choosing yogurt is to go with what you like most. Have it as a little snack alone, or try yogurt in sweet-but-tart breakfasts like smoothies and parfaits, or in savory fare like dips and condiments.
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Bananas are a fabulous simple carb source with natural sugars, filled with potassium and magnesium, and supply plant-based prebiotic compounds that help "feed" your good bacteria.
Enjoy a whole banana before a workout for some quick, easily digestible energy. You can include it in a dessert (banana split, anyone?), in a sandwich with nut butter and honey at lunch, or even as an afternoon snack with a spoonful of nut butter. Try slicing a banana into your morning yogurt bowl for a nutritious addition to round out a quick breakfast meal. It's a hearty, energy-packed food loaded with fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, manganese and more.
What is the healthiest carb to eat?
Carbs are an important macronutrient and energy source for the body. While some carbohydrates may be more nutritious than others, Hartley says her key carb-related recommendation is to eat enough of them and include them regularly at meals and snacks. Otherwise, going a long period of time without carbs can lead to blood sugar instability. “Carbs are our brain's main source of fuel, so eating carbs consistently can be helpful for mood, and maintaining energy and focus,” she says.
Focus on eating the more nutritious carbs you enjoy instead of forcing yourself to eat foods you don’t like, and trust you will get a balance of nutrients with a varied intake of carb sources. Food is fuel and nourishment, but it is also so much more – food, and food traditions and experiences can be one way to nourish ourselves emotionally. Oftentimes, carb-rich "fun" foods are significant parts of emotional eating experiences. Having a healthy relationship to food includes giving yourself permission to include all types of carbs, and enjoy joyful, adventurous and sentimental eating experiences.
Caroline L. Young, M.S., R.D., L.D., R.Y.T.
Caroline L. Young (she/her) is a nutrition counselor, yoga teacher and freelance health journalist. She is also the owner and founder of Whole Self Nutrition (WSN), LLC. Caroline has worked in the health and wellness industry for over a decade, and she is passionate about breaking down nutrition science into relatable information. She loves helping people understand the truth about nutrition, so they can have the healthiest relationship to food possible.
Carbohydrates are an essential component of the diet, and many high carb foods offer excellent health benefits. Vegetables, fruits, brown rice, dried fruits, and lentils can all provide good quality carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide essential fuel for the body and are necessary for it to function efficiently.What is the healthiest carbohydrate to eat? ›
The healthiest sources of carbohydrates—unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans—promote good health by delivering vitamins, minerals, fiber, and a host of important phytonutrients.What is a list of healthy carbs? ›
Eat More Complex Grains
Swap refined breads and pastas for complex carbohydrates and grains like brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and oats. These hearty grains are great for your heart and provide sustainable energy (thanks to fiber) to power the brain and body.
What is the worst type of carb to eat? The worst carbs to eat for weight loss are those that are highly processed, "simple" carbs that have a high glycemic index (high-GI): rice cereal, white bread, sweeteners, and commercial pasta.What carbs should I eat daily? ›
So if you get 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbs a day. You can find the carbohydrate content of packaged foods on the Nutrition Facts label.What can I eat instead of bread and pasta? ›
Spiralised veg is a great substitute for pasta while there are many foods which serve well as a low carb bread replacement including chickpea pancakes, oatcakes and sourdough bread. While cauliflower can make a convincing rice alternative.What are good carbs to replace bad carbs? ›
Nutrition experts divide carbohydrates into “good” and “bad.” Good carbs, like whole grains, brown rice and legumes, don't raise blood glucose quickly. Bad carbs, like white bread, cookies and sugary sodas, cause blood glucose to rise quickly.How to lose 20 pounds in a month? ›
If you want to lose 20lbs in a month, that's 5 pounds per week. To lose 5 pounds per week, you need to be at a deficit of around 17,500 calories per week. For reference, a pound of body fat is around 3,500 calories. A 17,500 calorie deficit per week is a deficit of 2,500 calories per day.What is the best cheese for seniors? ›
Options like blue cheese, Camembert, and Brie are made from unpasteurized milk, so seniors with weak immune systems run the risk of getting dangerous infections. However, seniors don't have to avoid all kinds of cheese. Hard cheeses like cheddar and Swiss are perfectly safe.
Losing weight requires you to burn more calories than you consume. Experts say you should aim to burn 500 calories more than what you eat each day. As far as how many carbohydrates to eat, Pratt says 100 to 150 grams of carbohydrates is safe for most people who are trying to lose weight.How many carbs should a 60 year old eat? ›
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) recommends carbs amount to 45 to 65 percent of your daily caloric intake, with everyone eating at least 130 grams to help carry out basic bodily functions.Which carbohydrate should be avoided? ›
A low carb diet typically has you limit bread, sweets, and starchy vegetables. Certain types of fruit may also be high in carbs. Carbs are an important source of energy and one of the three main macronutrients in our diets, along with fat and protein.What are the best and worst carbs? ›
Nutrition experts divide carbohydrates into “good” and “bad.” Good carbs, like whole grains, brown rice and legumes, don't raise blood glucose quickly. Bad carbs, like white bread, cookies and sugary sodas, cause blood glucose to rise quickly.What are good carbs and bad carbs? ›
“High-fiber carbs (like legumes, whole grains, starchy veggies and fruits) and high-protein carbs (like legumes, yogurt and milk) provide more nutrients than low-fiber carbs (like refined grains, sweets and sugary drinks),” Zumpano says.What can I eat instead of bread and potatoes? ›
Eating plant-based proteins such as nuts, beans and lentils can help. Lean meat and fish also can be good sources of healthy protein to include in your diet instead of rice, pasta, bread and potatoes.