According to a large and growing body of research, swapping this one can help you reduce your risk of cancer and Type 2 diabetes, reduce your chances of dying from heart disease or stroke and help you lose weight regardless of calories.
Although it sounds simple, for many people it will be a big change. These high-quality carbohydrates make up only 9 percent of all calories consumed by Americans.
For most people, processed, low-quality carbohydrates are a staple. They make up 42 percent of all calories consumed by Americans. They include packaged foods that dominate many supermarket shelves and household dining tables, such as white bread, pastries, pasta, bagels, chips, crackers and foods with added sugar, such as breakfast cereals, flavored yogurts, desserts, juices and soft drinks .
What happens when you replace processed carbs with high-quality carbs?
Studies show that the fiber in this food has many benefits. It promotes satiety, which helps you feel full. It nourishes the microbes that make up your gut microbiome, which can lower inflammation and protect against chronic disease. And it improves your blood sugar control and cholesterol levels
A large meta-analysis in the Lancet examined the health effects of eating different types of carbohydrates. The analysis, based on data collected from 4,635 people in 58 clinical trials, showed that adults who ate the highest levels of whole grains, vegetables and other fiber-rich carbohydrates had a 15 to 31 percent reduction in diabetes, colorectal cancer and their risk of dying from stroke or heart disease compared to people who ate these foods in the lowest quantities.
They also lost more weight – “despite not being told to eat less food or do more physical activity,” said Andrew Reynolds, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Otago Medical School and co-author of the research.
Why are processed carbs so bad for you?
On average, Americans eat five servings a day of foods with refined grains, such as white bread and pasta, and only one serving a day of whole-grain foods, such as brown rice and barley, said Fang Fang Zhang, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University and author of a study in JAMA that examined the types of carbohydrates and macronutrients consumed by Americans.
In her research, Zhang found that Americans have reduced their intake of sugary sodas and other foods with added sugar, thanks to growing public awareness of the health-damaging effects of sugar.
But at the same time, we’ve been eating more foods with refined grains, in part because they’re ubiquitous.
“We see an overall trend towards increased consumption of refined grains,” Zhang said. “With refined grains, we’re missing our target.”
This food has been stripped of its fiber, vitamins and minerals and industrially converted into flour and sugar. This causes them to be quickly absorbed by the body, causing blood sugar and insulin levels to rise and activating reward areas in the brain, all of which can lead to cravings, overeating and metabolic changes that lead to poor health.
Healthy carbs are carbs that have not been highly processed and stripped of their natural fiber. Fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains are high in fiber and packed with health-promoting nutrients that help protect against heart disease and other leading causes of death.
Here’s how to change your carbs
If your goal is to lose weight and improve your metabolic health, you don’t have to count calories or follow a strict diet. Just start by cutting empty carbs out of your diet. Here’s how to do it:
Cut out white foods. Cut down on foods such as cereals, pastries, white bread, white pasta, juice, sugary drinks and other foods with added sugar.
Add healthy carbs. It’s easy. Eat more vegetables, whole grains, legumes and lentils.
Add healthy fats and protein: After eliminating those empty carbs, some people find they feel better replacing them with foods higher in fat and protein, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, eggs, chicken, yogurt and seafood.
Add healthy grains: Try replacing white and highly processed carbohydrates with whole grains, whole wheat bread, beans, peas, lentils, beans, quinoa, fruits, vegetables and other unrefined carbohydrates.
Add high quality “nutrient dense” foods back into your diet. These foods have different labels that can help you identify them. Look for descriptors like “minimally processed,” “seasonal,” “grass-fed,” “whole grain,” and “pasture-raised.”
It may be difficult at first to cut out some of your favorite refined carbs, but you won’t feel hungry if you replace them with fiber-rich carbs and healthy fats.
Why the quality of your carbs matters
In one randomized trial published in JAMA, overweight people who were advised to cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods for a year lost weight – regardless of calories – and showed improvements in their blood sugar levels and blood pressure.
This approach works whether people follow a relatively low-fat or relatively low-carb diet. The findings show that for weight loss, diet quality trumps diet quantity, said Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has studied the effects of different diets on metabolic health and weight loss.
If you want to eat a healthier diet, your first step, he says, should be “getting rid of empty carb calories that only come with glucose and no fiber, vitamins or minerals.”
He recommends replacing those foods with what he calls a “basic diet” rich in plant foods eaten by cultures around the world, such as legumes, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
In Latin American cuisine, red, black and pinto beans are staples. In the Middle East, people have been using chickpeas and sesame seeds to make hummus and other dishes for centuries. In India, red and yellow lentils can be found in delicious dal, soups and stews. And in the Mediterranean, many dishes combine things like fava beans, cannellini beans and split peas.
“Americans eat very low numbers of beans, nuts and seeds,” he says. “We should eat more like other cultures around the world.”
Do you have questions about healthy eating? Email [email protected] and we may answer your questions in future columns.
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