During my career, I’ve discovered that nutrition is similar to religion. When I suggest someone modify his or her diet, albeit for a good reason, the reaction can be visceral. Forget peer-reviewed science, rational thought or substantive research. Emotion trumps logic every time. Asking people to change their diet is like attacking their values and beliefs.
Nonetheless, I persevere as the voice of nutrition reason. So, for those who are gluten-phobic and living carb-free, this article is for you.
Most of my clients can’t tell me if a carb is good or bad.
You tell me, good or bad?:
Arborio rice (which I use to prepare risotto with mushrooms, butternut squash and kale).
Couscous (which I use in Moroccan Tagine with fresh mint, zucchini and carrots).
Thin-crust pizza dough (which I top with figs, arugula and brie).
If you said rice, couscous and pizza dough are bad, you are sorely mistaken. Carbs have gotten a bad rap for decades, and even sugar is all right. (Any takers for fruited crème brûlée from my new cookbook?). Essentially, it’s how you prepare carbohydrates that makes them healthy or not. Fried apple pie? Not so much. Baked apples with chopped hazelnuts and frozen yogurt? Much better.
Today, the question on everyone’s lips — “What’s a good carbohydrate?” — assumes there are good and bad carbohydrates. Unfortunately, everyone wants to categorize things as “best” or “worst,” “good” or “bad.” Everyone wants labels and instructions. Well, there are none. Creating a list of good and bad carbs is actually a huge disservice to those seeking to eat healthfully. It instills food paranoia, which now seems rampant.
From my perspective, a better question is: “What’s the difference between a complex carbohydrate and a simple carbohydrate?”
First, it’s important to know that carbohydrates keep the body running efficiently. They’re the body’s (and the brain’s) very first choice for energy, preserving valuable muscle mass when you need to perform your best.
High-fiber foods such as whole grain bread, cereals and legumes are considered complex carbohydrates. They’ve been shown to lower the risk of developing heart disease, certain forms of cancer and diabetes; plus, they help with weight loss. High-fiber foods are usually less energy dense, which means they have fewer calories for the same volume of food. Simple carbohydrates include honey, fruit, jam, jelly and brown sugar.
Interestingly, research has shown that thinner people tend to eat more carbohydrates than those struggling with weight loss, so enjoying carbs may help you achieve the body you’ve always wanted. Make sure that 50 percent of your daily calories come from carbohydrates. So, if you’re eating a 1,700 calories per day diet, 850 of those calories should be from carbs. (That’s 213 grams, for those who are counting.) Finally, half of your total grain consumption should come from whole grains, or complex carbohydrates, according to the USDA.
Ultimately, carbohydrates in their natural form can be your friend. Select those in an unprocessed state, and you’ll be on your way to better health.
Tina Ruggiero, M.S., R.D., L.D., is a nutrition expert and award-winning author. Her newest book is “The Truly Healthy Family Cookbook.” Find Tina at www.Tina Ruggiero.com.