Carbohydrates tend to get a bad rap, especially in this era of the ketogenic, paleo and Atkins diets.
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So do starches — aka complex carbs — still have a place in a healthy diet? You bet.
“Simple carbs (other than fruits and milk) should be avoided in the diet. Complex carbs should prevail,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD.
The difference in the two is directly related to fiber. Because your body can’t digest fiber, it slows your digestion, which can help with weight loss.
“Complex carbs are almost always more nutrient-dense, and can help reduce your risk for heart disease and some cancers,” she notes.
But not all starches belong in your diet. Here are our dietitians’ favorite picks.
Beans and legumes: Nutrient powerhouses
Black beans, lentils, kidney beans, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), split peas, fava beans … yum.
“The healthiest starchy foods are the ones bursting with protein and fiber, putting beans and legumes at the top of the list,” says Anna Taylor, MS, RD, LD, CDE.
Here’s what beans and legumes will do for you:
- Their protein supports lean body mass.
- Their fiber supports healthy blood sugars and cholesterol levels.
- Their fiber lowers risk for colorectal disease like diverticulitis and certain cancers.
- The killer protein-fiber combo keeps you full longer, encourages portion control and limits mindless snacking.
Plus, legumes are a rich source of plant nutrients, including antioxidants that protect cells from the free-radical damage implicated in cancer, heart disease and arthritis.
One serving of beans — about 1/2 cup — provides 7 to 8 grams of protein, around 120 calories, roughly 20 grams of carbohydrate and around 8 grams of fiber. You also get trace minerals like iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, and vitamins like folate and thiamin.
Adds Ms. Kirkpatrick, “Beans and legumes are also highly versatile — and cheap.”
Shoutout to chickpeas
Few legumes can beat the mighty chickpea when it comes to versatility.
“Chickpeas are a great way to add plant protein and fiber to your salads, soups, pastas and rice dishes,” says Julia Zumpano, RD, LD.
“I love to make hummus from scratch using tahini (sesame seed paste) or extra-virgin olive oil, fresh garlic, cumin and turmeric,” she says. “I serve it with fresh veggies, whole-grain or gluten-free crackers, or use it as a dressing for salads.”
Crave something crunchy to munch on? Toast chickpeas, tossed with olive oil and spices, in the oven. Or use them to replace croutons on your salads.
“I’ve even used pureed chickpeas in place of flour to make chocolate chip cookies — and my kids didn’t even notice!” says Ms. Zumpano.
Chickpeas are a good source of vitamins and minerals, she adds, providing manganese, folate, tryptophan, phosphorus and iron.
Whole grains: Unprocessed goodness
“Whole grains are very high in fiber and nutrients,” says Dana Bander, MPH, RD, LD, CDE. “My favorites include wild rice and buckwheat, which boast high levels of magnesium, riboflavin and niacin.”
Brown rice doesn’t make the list because it has less fiber. And while buckwheat is very high in iron and protein, “it comes with a higher price tag in the form of calories and carbs,” she cautions.
But the quintessential whole grain has to be quinoa, says Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD.
“This plant-based, complete source of protein contains all nine essential amino acids — like animal products do, but without any of the animal fat,” she says.
Quinoa is also rich in the minerals iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. And with its combination of protein and fiber, it’s slowly digested.
“This makes quinoa a good choice for people with diabetes or for anyone trying to lose weight,” says Ms. Patton.
“It’s also great for vegans, who risk not eating enough protein or getting enough of certain vitamins and minerals, and for those with gluten sensitivity or allergy.”
(In other words, quinoa is a great choice for pretty much everyone.)
Kudos for sprouted grain bread
Love your morning toast? Maximize the nutrition and minimize weight gain by choosing sprouted grain bread.
“Sprouted grain is somewhat broken down, making it easier for the body to digest and absorb its nutrients,” explains Ms. Patton.
She adds that most brands of sprouted grain bread contain no added sugar (a common ingredient in most breads) and are lower in sodium.
To get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck at any meal, try replacing empty starches with legumes and whole grains. They’ll provide the protein and fiber you need to minimize cravings and maximize health.