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.