What Are the Components of Healthy Carbohydrates?

Healthy carbohydrates =  low glycemic load (low sugar, low refined carbohydrates, whole foods) and high phytonutrient content (colorful plant pigments, other health promoting components)

Glycemic load has to do with how fast a food raises your blood sugar and also takes into account the carbohydrate content of that food.  The glycemic index of foods refers to how fast a portion of food containing 50 grams of carbohydrate raises your blood sugar as compared to either a 50-gram portion of glucose (sugar) or white bread.   The glycemic load is a bit more useful than the glycemic index of foods since it takes into account usual serving sizes of foods.  For example, carrots have a high glycemic index, but a usual serving of carrots (6-8 grams) has a low total carbohydrate content and thus a low glycemic index.  Other factors such as, the presence of protein, fat and fiber also affect how fast a meal will raise your blood sugar.   A low glycemic load equals better health since you want to avoid foods and meals that rapidly raise your blood sugar (and subsequently your insulin) levels since you can expect a blood sugar “crash” to follow.  Blood sugar and insulin highs and lows are very hard on your body.

The fiber content of a food is a good indicator of the glycemic load and phytonutrient content of a food (equals healthy carbohydrates).  Use the Nutrition Facts Label and look for foods with at least 3-5 grams per serving.  And what’s your total fiber intake goal for the day? 30-50 grams. 

Healthy Carbohydrates: The Importance of Fiber

Some medical experts believe that a lack of dietary fiber is such an important health component that a quick way to evaluate the quality of someone’s diet is to estimate their daily intake of fiber rich foods. 

Insoluble fibers found in foods such as, bran, whole grains and vegetables are stool bulking agents and facilitate regular elimination which is important for detoxifying the body and for colon health. 

Soluble fibers found in foods such as, fruits, beans, vegetables and nuts, helps to decrease cholesterol absorption, regulate blood sugar levels, maintain intestinal pH, provide nourishment for the intestine and promotes meal satiety. 

Prebiotics: Along with a balance of soluble and insoluble fibers, other carbohydrates called inulin and fructooligosacchrides (FOS) and otherwise known as prebiotics, provide “fuel” for the “friendly” bacteria in your colon.  Maintaining a healthy balance of “friendly” bacteria in your gut is a major key to maintaining your overall health as imbalances can cause health issues throughout the body.  Prebiotic foods also provide nourishment for the intestine itself.  The health of your gut has a lot to do with your overall health condition, so take care of it!  Prebiotic containing foods include, chicory, onions, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, burdock and rye.

Healthy Carbohydrates: Choose Whole, Intact Grains 

  1. First choice: whole, intact grains as unbroken grains.  Unbroken grains, like wild brown rice, quinoa, wheat berries, buckwheat groats, oats, millet, amaranth and teff should be your number one choice of grain.  An intact grain contains the bran (contains fiber, B vitamins, minerals, fiber), the endosperm and the germ (contains antioxidants, vitamin E, B vitamins, beneficial fatty acids).  All “whole grains” contain these components, but only intact whole grains maintain the full nutrients in those three components.  Whole, intact grains are nutritionally superior and also help to balance blood sugar (low glycemic load), insulin and inflammation.
  2. Your second choice should be sprouted grain products. A sprouted grain product is often referred to as a “flourless” bread product since they are made very differently than traditional breads.  Instead of using ground and refined flours to create the dough, sprouted bread products are made by first soaking wheat berries in water for a few days until they sprout.  The sprouts are then made into a “mush” which is used as the dough to make the bread product.  This produces more of an intact grain bread product. 
  3. Your last choice should be 100% whole grain flours and bread products (hint: denser bread = more whole grains).   Whole grain flours are the flours of your intact grains (whole wheat, brown rice, buckwheat).   Did you know that white and whole wheat bread have a very similar glycemic index?  Even though whole grain flours are superior to white flours since they contain some of the intact grain’s original nutrients, they are still pulverized and broken grains.   When intact grains are pulverized into flours the beneficial oils are prone to oxidation or rancidity.  A high intake of processed or refined carbohydrates promotes inflammation, acidity, sugar cravings and blood sugar “crashes” and negatively affects metabolism.  Consider nut or seed meals (almond, cashew, coconut) instead of flour in baking or for breading.

How Many Fruits and Vegetables Do I Really Need to Eat?

Healthy carbohydrates include fruits and vegetables.  Eat a rainbow of fresh fruits and non-starchy vegetables (8-10 ½- 1 cup servings/day of mainly non-starchy vegetables) and avoid conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with the highest toxin load.   The Environmental Working Group website offers a handy pocket guide (Environmental Working Group Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce) that will tell you latest on which types of produce are exposed to the highest pesticide levels. 

Using a juice extractor to make fresh vegetable juices is a great way to get in your 8-10 servings per day.  Though, remember that the fiber is contained in the fruit/vegetable skin and flesh – so you need to eat the whole food to get the fiber.

Emphasis of servings should be on non-starchy vegetables.  Total fruit servings/day should be individualized, but in general focus on non-starchy vegetables and only small amounts of fruit throughout your day.  

What to Eliminate and Why…

Read the Nutrition Facts Label!  Look for these ingredients in both foods and liquids and avoid them.

Avoid/Minimize: Refined/added Sugar (i.e. table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, glucose, maltose, dextrose, fructose, syrups, fruit & fruit juice concentrate, honey, agave, barley malt, cane juice, molasses, disaccharides) Artificial sweeteners (i.e. Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame-K (Sunette, Sweet-n-Safe, Sweet One)) Sugar alcohols (i.e. mannitol, sorbitol, lactitol, malitol, xylitol) Highly processed “natural” sweeteners (ie. Stevia)

People consume too much sugar, period.  Regardless of the “good” sugar vs. the “bad” sugar, you should try to eliminate or reduce your total sugar intake from all sources.  There are many different ways to say “sugar” – see above.  High fructose corn syrup requires its own discussion.  This syrup is basically an indicator of a poor quality food and may have more harmful effects on your health compared to table sugar since it is metabolized very rapidly and bypasses many of the body’s normal regulatory systems.  Artificial sweeteners are chemicals that stimulate insulin and “trick” your body into eating sugar to balance out the elevated insulin levels.  Some believe that since they are so much sweeter than table sugar this leads to altered taste preferences and promotes a taste for sweets.  With a sweetness that is about 300 times that of regular sugar, Stevia is thought to also promote taste alterations and although promoted as “natural”, is still a very processed food product.  Sugar alcohols do convert to sugar in the bloodstream and often can produce negative GI side effects, like gas and bloating.

Avoid/Minimize: Refined or non whole-grain flours (white or wheat flours).   Only the endosperm of the intact grain is left in refined flours, which is the starchy carbohydrate part of grain that acts like sugar in the body.  

Minimize starchy vegetables/fruits (potatoes, corn, dried fruit, bananas, mangoes, root vegetables)  Starchy vegetables and high sugar fruits should be a small part of your diet.  Avoid fruit juice as it is a very concentrated source of sugar.

This is a general guide to healthy carbohydrates and may need to be modified based on your individual health and healing needs.  In general, knowing the components of healthy carbohydrates as well as translating that knowledge when shopping for food and planning meals is one of the keys to improving your health and starting the healing process.   

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Some References: The Institute for Functional Medicine, Clinical Nutrition: A Functional Approach, 2004; Hyman, M. Ultrametabolism, 2006; The Center for Mind Body Medicine, Food as Medicine conference, 2012

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