If there’s one hot-button word in all of dieting, we can all pretty much agree on what it is: carbs. All carbs, some carbs, no carbs, right carbs, wrong carbs—it can get confusing, to say the least.
Well, here’s the bottom line: There are a lot of bad, junky foods out there, and yes, many of them are very much carb-based. And that’s one of the reasons why carbs have gotten such a bad rap, because it’s not necessarily about the carbs, but about refined carbs: The simple sugars that have zero nutritional value and are so often associated with people putting on weight. However, there is such a thing as “good” carbs, and they’re important for you to have as part of a balanced diet.
Whole-grain foods (made with 100 percent whole grains) are high in fiber, which will help slow your digestion, keep you full, and regulate your blood sugar levels. These good carbs help give and restore energy to your body; and along with lean protein and healthy fats, they serve as a major nutritional component to a good diet.
A 2010 New Zealand study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found people who had four servings of whole-grain foods (as a substitute for more refined carbohydrates) lost an inch in waist size during the course of the study compared to those who didn’t. And a 2012 Chinese study published in Nutrition Journal found that those who ate oatmeal daily for six weeks had a greater decrease in cholesterol levels and waist circumference than those who ate the same amount of carbs in noodles over the same time period.
Fiber is one of the key components at work here because it helps you feel full. A 2011 study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that a whole-grain breakfast resulted in a higher amount of satiety and less hunger and desire to eat after four hours compared to those who ate refined flour during breakfast.
But the effects aren’t just about losing weight; they are also about having good health for the long run. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who ate 26 grams of fiber a day lowered their risk of dying from cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory diseases by up to 59 percent compared to those who ate just 11 grams of fiber. And a 2013 study in the Annals of Epidemiology looked at more than 70,000 women who developed type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that those with higher fiber intake had a lower risk of developing the disease, and they even suggested that small increases in whole grains can be beneficial (since the consumption of whole grain in this study population was around only one serving a day).
The major problem, of course, is that carbohydrates are unlike most other major categories of food. Most of us know what a vegetable looks like and even the looniest of folks can’t argue that a French fry should count as a yellow vegetable. But with carbs, the area is grayer than a London sky, especially when you add in more marketing lingo: Even sugar cereals can be “made with whole grains,” but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t packed with nutritionally bankrupt refined carbohydrates as well. Oatmeal is a carb. But so is white sugar.
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To achieve your best-ever bikini body, you’ll want to get rid of sugars, refined carbohydrates, and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), a sweetener that has been linked to all kinds of diseases. Scientists believe that it simply acts differently in the body, negatively affecting hormonal reactions and other chemical processes.
Research found those people who drank HFCS-sweetened drinks had higher fructose blood levels than if they’d consumed drinks containing sucrose (or regular table sugar). These elevated levels, researchers say, can lead to high blood pressure and insulin resistance.
So, yes, you can eat carbs—and you should eat carbs for weight loss, satiety, and total-body health benefits. Here’s how to make sure you’re getting the right kinds:
For cereal, choose unsweetened oatmeal. And you can also enjoy unsweetened 100-percent puffed whole grains like wheat, rice, oats, barley, or corn. There are plenty of ways to add your own elements so that they have a little more zip if you want it. You can add cinnamon or even nuts, not just for crunch but also to add protein and satiating healthy fats. If you prefer sweetness, add fresh or dried fruit instead of sugar; or sprinkle on some flaxseed to add in more fiber and omega-3 fats.
For breads and pastas, pick ones that are labeled “100-percent whole grain.” That way, you know aren’t getting refined flour, which has little nutritional value.
Choose brown rice over white. (And definitely over fried!) Quinoa or millet are also good choices to accompany meals—just be sure to keep the serving size in check.
Popcorn (unbuttered) counts as a whole grain. One small study found that participants reported more satisfaction and less hunger when they ate popcorn compared to eating chips. And a study from the University of Scranton found that popcorn (prepared healthfully) can have twice as many of the antioxidants called polyphenols as apples and grapes. Choose air-popped kernels with low-cal additions, like spices.
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