Much like dietary fat, carbs have gotten the short end of the nutritional stick. Yes, there are high-glycemic carb offenders, like donuts and bagels, that quickly turn to sugar, effectively bloating your stomach and packing on the pounds.
But just as you shouldn't fear all dietary fats, there plenty of reasons to eat carbs. "Good," complex carbs are crucial to keeping our bodies and brains regulated. In fact, a new study from the University of Chicago Press Journals suggests carbohydrates (particularly starches) are the reason our brains have gotten bigger and we've become smarter over the last million years. The human brain uses up to 25 percent of the body's energy budget and up to 60 percent of blood glucose, the researchers add. Since carbs are our main source of energy, it pays to have the right kind in your diet.
Complex carbs contain longer chains of sugar molecules, so it takes more time for our bodies to break them down. What this means is you’ll have more energy when you hit the gym, your appetite will be curbed for longer, you’ll recover faster from a tough training session, and your brain will stay sharp (not to mention you’ll be in far better spirits than your friends on low-carb diets) when you eat them.
Now, when you’re grocery shopping, know that food labels include sugar and fiber in the total number of carbohydrates. Because our body breaks carbs into sugar, you want to choose high-fiber carbs, which take longer to break down and provide more lasting energy. To help you discern the best-of-the-best, we thought outside of the bread box and chose 10 nutritious carb sources from most of the major food groups (vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruit, dairy) so you'll get a variety of vitamins and nutrients to support a healthy lifestyle.
And if you’re not sure about the amount of carbs you should eat each day, know that your body size, activity level, fitness goals, and genetics will alter the number. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests about 55 percent of your daily calorie consumption should come from carbs (bodybuilders will get about 50 percent of their calories from carbs, and low-cab eaters will get as low as 10 or 15 percent of their calories from carbs).
Check out our guide on using carbs wisely to calculate your maximum daily allotment, and how to properly fit them into your diet.
Breadfruit, a member of the jackfruit family, is the weirdest (and maybe the greatest) food you've never heard of. When cooked, this tropical superfruit is actually very similar in texture to that of freshly baked bread, hence its name. Like bread, breadfruit is an amazing source of carbohydrates (27 g), as well as plant-based proteins, vitamins, essential amino acids, minerals, and the list goes on. In fact, one large single fruit can satisfy the daily carb needs of a family of five. One study even found that when ground, breadfruit yields a gluten-free flour that trumps regular wheat flour in protein, fat, and ash contents. This superfruit also does good for the world as it's being cultivated in developing countries to help combat protein deficiency and food insecurity.
Sweet potatoes are rich in simple starches and complex carbohydrates, and high in fiber, beta-carotene, and vitamins. Its naturally occurring sugars (9g) will raise insulin levels—if you’re diabetic, yams are a better choice, because they have more fiber and less sugar—but one medium-sized cooked sweet potato comes in a little over 100 calories and boasts 27g of total carbohydrates—four of which come from fiber. And sweet potatoes are a powerhouse recovery food. Its carotenoids help aid cell repair, the starchy carbs help restock energy stores, and fiber will keep you full so you’re not digging around for its unhealthier cousin—the potato chip.
You may not be familiar with taro, but its root (called a corm) is one of the most popular root vegetables in Asia, South America, and parts of the Pacific Islands. When cooked, its natural sugars give it a sweet, nutty flavor. Nutritionally speaking, taro is one of the finest sources of dietary fibers. One cup of taro sliced and cooked yields nearly 7g of fiber and has less than 1g of sugar—both of which comprise its 46g of total carbohydrates. The slow-digesting complex carbs help to gradually raise your blood sugar levels, giving you longer-lasting energy.
One of the more popular legumes, chickpeas are an excellent carb go-to—especially if you’re trying to stay lean. One cooked cup of this versatile bean contains 45g of slow-acting carbs, 12g of which are fiber. Daily consumption can lead to better weight management and weight loss because they're low on the glycemic index and stabilize your hunger levels. What's more: research has found it can even lower bad cholesterol.
Brown rice is a great staple because it’s filling and inexpensive. It’s also one of the richest sources of carbohydrates among grains (45g per cooked cup). With 4g of fiber, it provides long-lasting energy and promotes less fat storage as compared to white rice. Other top-tier sources of fiber-rich carbohydrates include buckwheat and quinoa.
Old-fashioned oats couldn’t be a better breakfast essential. One cup yields 104g of carbs, 17 of which are fiber. Because they’re essentially a blank slate, you can dress them up with nutritionally dense add-ins. Oats also contain a super fiber called beta-glucan, which gives fiber its cholesterol-lowering effect. This also helps slow the digestion of food, allowing you to feel satisfied for hours.
Blueberries and other berries are among the most nutritious sources of carbohydrate when it comes to fruit. The're rich in vitamins, minerals, and can even turn white fat into calorie-burning beige fat. They aren’t the most concentrated source of carbs; a cup of blueberries has 10g (7g from sugar, 2 from fiber), but they do have incredibly high antioxidant levels and a multitude of health benefits thanks to their polyphenols.
Bananas are easy to digest, loaded with fast-acting carbohydrates (one large banana provides 31 grams of carbs), and packed with potassium, which aids in maintaining nerve and muscle function. Basically this is nature's own version of the perfect pre- or post-workout snack. To amplify the health benefits, add some nut butter to promote muscle recovery and repair.
Chestnuts are different from other nuts in that they have very little protein or fat. They’re chiefly made of starch—comparable to sweet potatoes, actually—and their calories come primarily from carbohydrates, which is comparable to wheat and rice (44g carb per 100g—11g from sugar, 8g from fiber). Chestnuts are exceptionally rich in vitamin C, folates, and monounsaturated fats like oleic acid to boot.
An 8oz serving of nonfat, plain Greek yogurt has 11g of carbohydrates (6g of sugar), making it a good pre- or post-workout because it’ll give you quick energy. If you’ve sworn yourself off dairy, know that calcium plays a role in muscle contraction, keeping your heart healthy, and regulating your metabolism.