Carbs are a bit controversial these days, but definitely have their place.
Read this article to learn which are the healthiest carbs and how many to eat.
If you have any questions after reading, let me know in the comments 🙂
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are chains of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the most basic unit of which are “monosaccharides” (1).
We find carbs in food as sugars, starches, and fibers.
Sugars include monosaccharides – like glucose, fructose, and galactose – and disaccharides – like sucrose and lactose.
Common sugar sources are fruits, honey, and processed sweets, syrups, and sodas.
Starches are long chains of glucose.
Examples of starch sources are grains, roots, tubers, and legumes
Fibers are also long chains of carbohydrate, but bonded differently than starches.
You can find fiber in nearly all plants to varying degrees.
Sugars and starches are digestible and serve primarily as energy sources.
Fiber, on the other hand, is generally indigestible and serves purposes other than energy provision.
What are the health benefits of carbs?
Some folks, particularly in the low-carb world, like to point out that we don’t “need” carbs.
It’s true that there is no known lower limit for dietary carbohydrate to sustain life (2).
However, just because we don’t need to eat carbs to survive doesn’t mean they aren’t useful.
For example, carbohydrates may help you crush high-intensity exercise like resistance training (3).
Furthermore, including carbs in your diet might improve certain aspects of sleep (4).
Similarly, carbohydrates appear to support a healthy hormonal stress response (5).
So far, though, we’ve been talking about energetic carbs like sugars and starches, not fiber.
Dietary fiber, if you’ll recall, we do not break down for use directly as energy.
However, there’s evidence that fiber benefits our health in other ways.
For example, it appears to improve insulin sensitivity, type 2 diabetes risk, glycemic control, lipid profiles, body weight, abdominal adiposity, gut microbial viability and diversity, cardiovascular disease risk and mortality, depression risk, colonic health and integrity, and colon cancer risk (6).
In the coming sections, we’ll discuss additional factors you might consider when figuring out your own carbohydrate intake.
For the rest of this post, we’ll use “carbohydrate” and “carb” interchangeably to refer to sources of sugar and starch, rather than fiber.
What are the best sources of carbs?
First and foremost, nobody but you can decide which carbs best align with your needs, preferences, and goals.
That said, there are steps you can take to find a solid starting point for further personalization.
Level of refinement
One way to assess carbohydrate quality is looking at its level of refinement.
Often, processing carbohydrates like grains or fruits into flours, purees, or sauces destroys their cell walls.
These “acellular” carbohydrates may have a higher potential to promote a more inflammatory gut microbiome (7).
This inflammatory gut microbiome, in turn, might contribute to the development of obesity and chronic disease.
Such acellular carbohydrates include refined flours, sugars, and other processed foods like cakes, cookies, crackers, and pastries.
You might opt instead for unrefined fruit, tubers, roots, legumes, or grains, whose cell walls are still intact.
Another popular and long-used method for assessing the quality of carbohydrate sources is the glycemic index.
In a nutshell, the glycemic index is a measure of how certain foods affect blood sugar levels (8).
However, there’s growing thought that the glycemic index may not really be all that helpful.
This variation in response appears to depend on factors like sleep, physical activity, and differences in our gut microbiomes.
Additionally, a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis concluded that lowering a diet’s glycemic index might not be as beneficial as steps like increasing dietary fiber or replacing refined grains with whole grains (18).
That said, even whole grains may be overrated, so far as your carb options are concerned.
Nutrients and anti-nutrients
Grains contain proteins and other anti-nutrients that might contribute to the manifestation of chronic inflammation and autoimmune disease by increasing intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut” (19).
Like grains, beans and legumes also contain anti-nutrients that may have adverse health effects (20).
If you’re going to eat grains or legumes, consider soaking, sprouting, or fermenting them.
These preparation methods may increase the bioavailability of their beneficial nutrients and decrease the potentially detrimental effects of their anti-nutrients (21).
Low FODMAP diets
If you’re having digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you might consider a low-FODMAP diet (22).
FODMAPSs are “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides, and polyols.”
They’re found in foods like honey, milk, yogurt, wheat, onions, apples, pears, beans, and non-caloric sweeteners (23).
While some folks do just fine, or even thrive, with these foods in their diets, folks who are intolerant to FODMAPs may want to steer clear.
Low- or no-fiber diets
Similarly, some find a low- to no-fiber diet helpful.
Sure, we mentioned earlier that fiber is associated with a host of health benefits.
However, some folks find that removing fiber helps them manage digestive issues like Crohn disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS, diverticulitis, and even abdominal surgery (24).
Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)
Finally, some folks with chronic health issues find relief with an elimination diet called the Autoimmune Protocol.
The Autoimmune Protocol typically involves elimination of grains, legumes, nightshades, dairy, eggs, coffee, alcohol, nuts, seeds, refined/ultra-processed sugars, oils, and food additives.
Similar to FODMAPs and fiber, while these foods may be just fine or even beneficial for some, others may do better without them.
The moral of the story is you may need to adapt your idea of what’s “healthy” to your specific needs, preferences, and goals.
How much carbohydrate should you eat?
Often, after taking some of the steps above to improve the quality of the carbs we eat, the quantity falls into place.
However, some of us still might want some clearer direction, especially considering that there’s so much conflicting information out there about carbs
Do carbs make you fat (or sick or whatever else…)?
There’s a perception spreading around that we have to cut carbs to lose weight and/or be healthy.
However, this claim doesn’t appear to be supported by the evidence.
For example, a 2018 meta-analysis found that low-carb diets were only marginally better than high-carb diets in improving diabetics’ HbA1c and triglycerides (27).
There were no differences, though, between the two approaches in improving weight, blood pressure, HDL-C, or LDL-C.
Another 2018 meta-analysis of 32 studies with over 500 total participants found that low-fat diets appear to be favorable to low-carb diets for increasing energy expenditure and fat loss (28).
Of course, this paper only looked at controlled-feeding studies.
That is, it only looked at studies in which calories and protein were controlled and carbohydrate and fat content varied.
However, even when these variables aren’t controlled, it appears there’s nothing inherently fattening or problematic about carbohydrates.
For example, participants in a 2018 randomized clinical trial saw similar improvements in weight and health, regardless of whether they restricted carbohydrates or fats (29).
Rather, those who were most successful prioritized minimally-processed foods and found an approach they could stick to consistently.
Speaking of food quality, a 2020 study of 37,000 people concluded that food quality appears to be a more important factor in mortality risk than relative fat or carbohydrate content (30).
There’s a good chance you can see improvements in your health with a wide range of relative macronutrient intakes.
Prioritizing minimally-processed foods and finding an approach you can maintain consistently appear to be key.
How to optimize your own carbohydrate intake
You might start by taking the steps we discussed earlier to address carb quality.
That may make figuring out the right quantity for you a bit easier.
However, there are some simple rules-of-thumb you might consider.
If you’re training intensely, for example, you might feel better with more carbs.
If not, you might feel better with less carbohydrates.
You might consider tracking your own intake for a bit to see where you are.
Then, experiment by dialing your carb intake up and down and seeing how you feel.
As you dial up your carbs, you’ll generally want to dial down your fat, and vice versa.
You might prefer more carbohydrates and less fat.
On the other hand, you might prefer more fat and less carbs.
Of course, you might just prefer an even balance of the two.
Consider a similar approach with your fiber intake.
You might feel your best with lots of fiber or with none at all.
This is all up to you and you alone to determine.
What to do now
First, consider generally improving the quality of your carbohydrates.
Focus on shifting away from refined grains, sugar, and flour.
Prioritize whole fruit, berries, tubers, and root vegetables.
If choosing legumes or grains, consider soaking, fermenting, or sprouting them.
From there, tinker with the quantity and sources of your carbohydrates.
Pay attention to how different carbohydrate sources might make you feel.
Keep an eye on your appetite, mood, and cravings.
Take note of any changes in your performance, sleep, and stress.
Tune in to any effects on your digestion, skin, and mental clarity.
You might find keeping a food journal to record your observations helpful.
Master the basics, prioritize consistency, and change one variable at a time.
Make an adjustment, see how it affects your progress, and repeat.
Remember that none of this is a reflection of your value as a person.
If it takes you some time to look and feel your best, that’s totally cool.
Keep showing up and keep putting yourself first.
You are worthy of that.
Start where you are.
Do what you can.
Find what works for you.
You’ve got this.