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Got carb anxiety? Consider these healthy carbohydrate foods

It's no surprise if you fear carbohydrate-rich foods since they raise blood glucose more than fat and protein do. But, diabetes or not, carbohydrates are, in fact, your body's preferred fuel. Experts recommend a minimum of 130 grams daily to fuel your brain. Though there is more than one way to a healthy plate, in general, carbohydrates should make up at least 45 percent of your calorie intake. Expect some sluggishness and brain fog if you skim too much.

Having diabetes neither takes away your right nor your need to eat healthfully, and when we look at the diets of the world's healthiest populations, we see ample carbohydrates in the form of whole grains, lowfat and nonfat dairy, non-starchy vegetables, beans and other legumes, starchy vegetables and fruits. There is no need for you to omit any of these types of foods. Without them, you would fall short on fiber, vitamins, minerals and hundreds of phytochemical disease-fighters. But, and this is a big but, you must watch your portions and balance your entire diet. Just because brown rice is good for you, for example, doesn't mean that you should eat a bowl full or that you can eat large amounts of other carb-containing foods at the same time.

Often when people cut back on carbs, they increase protein-rich foods that are high in saturated fat (think cheese, chicken with skin, prime rib, steak, ham hocks and pork belly). Not only is saturated fat linked with higher levels of cholesterol, it seems to worsen insulin resistance, making blood glucose control more difficult. If you do increase protein-rich or fat-rich foods, aim for the healthiest ones such skinless poultry, lowfat cheese and cottage cheese, fish, nuts, nut butters and avocado.

Less desirable carbs come from foods such as sugar, honey, desserts, crackers, chips, refined grains such as white rice and white pasta, full-fat milk and yogurt, and fruit juice and fruit drinks. Though there is no need to completely omit these foods either, they should be a very small part of your diet.

Building a healthy shopping list

Dietary patterns are more important than the inclusion or exclusion of any individual food. However, to get you started, here are a few tasty, nutrient-rich carbohydrate-containing foods to keep on your shopping list.

Greek Yogurt. This nutrient-dense food is higher in protein and lower in carbohydrate than traditional yogurts. It's creamier too, so it's perfect for sauces. Buy the plain nonfat variety and mix in fresh or frozen fruit for a quick breakfast or snack.

Oats. This whole grain is a great way to start your day. Oats' fiber acts like a sponge by sopping up cholesterol from your digestive tract and preventing it from entering into your bloodstream. Oats should also help control your blood glucose because the same fiber improves the action of insulin.

Barley. Barley contains the same fiber as oats, and it may be even more potent in reducing blood glucose and insulin levels.

Beans and other legumes. Not only do beans have more protein than other vegetables, they also contain resistant starch. This type of carbohydrate does not get digested, so it doesn't contribute to blood glucose. Plus resistant starch feeds the healthy bacteria in our guts. When intestinal microbes feast on resistant starch, they produce a type of fatty acid that improves insulin resistance. Also rich in fiber, potassium, magnesium, folate and several phytochemicals, beans are linked to lower blood pressure and less heart disease. Short on time? Use canned beans or cook up red lentils, which take only about 15 to 25 minutes.

Fruits and vegetables. Don't forget these mainstays of a healthy diet. For the greatest health boost, choose all colors (even white) and all types.

Sample menu

This menu is merely an example of fitting in 150 g carbohydrate with healthful choices. You may need and want more than 150 g, and of course, you need to add good-for-you fat and protein sources.

Breakfast

  • ½ cup cooked oats (15 g)
  • 1 cup skim milk (12 g)
  • 1 medium peach (15g)

Lunch

  • 1 6-inch whole wheat pita bread (30 g)
  • 2 cups lettuce, cucumber, carrot, tomato, bell pepper (10 g)
  • ½ cup cooked broccoli (5 g)

Snack

  • 1 small apple (15 g)

Dinner

  • ½ cup cooked barley (22 g)
  • 1 cup cooked summer squash (10 g)
  • 1 cup skim milk (12 g)

Sources and Additional Reading

Dietary References Macronutrients

Kay M. Behall, PhD, Daniel J. Scholfield, BS, and Judith Hallfrisch, PhD Comparison of Hormone and Glucose Responses of Overweight Women to Barley and Oats Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Vol. 24, No. 3, 182-188 (2005)

"Low-carbohydrate weight-loss diets. Effects on cognition and mood.", Appetite, Vol. 52, Issue 1, February 2009, Pages 96-103

Maki KC et al. Effects of consuming foods containing oat beta-glucan on blood pressure, carbohydrate metabolism and biomarkers of oxidative stress in men and women with elevated blood pressure. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007 Jun;61(6):786-95. Epub 2006 Dec 6.

Minimum Carbohydrate Intake

Riserus U, Willett WC and Hu FB. Dietary Fats and prevention of type 2 diabetes. Prog Lipid Res. 2009 January ; 48(1): 44-51.

Article sources  expand

About Jill Weisenberger

Jill Weisenberger, MS, RD, CDE is the author of Diabetes Weight Loss: Week by Week (American Diabetes Association, 2012). She serves as contributing editor of Environmental Nutrition. A recognized speaker and consultant, Jill is recognized for her practical advice and desires to help others improve their eating habits, to lose weight and to live healthier lives.

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