How to Choose Better Carbs

breaking a loaf of bread

Cereal, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, fruit, soda and sweets all have one thing in common: carbs! But, all carbs are certainly not  created equal. Some carbohydrates are more nutritionally dense than others, and (depending on the amount of fiber, starch and added sugar they contain), these foods can have very different effects on both blood sugar and energy levels. When it comes to choosing carbohydrates to eat or drink, fiber-rich, nutrient-dense sources are definitely the way to go. Here are some tips to help you choose better carbs across the board.

1. Get most of your carbs from minimally processed or whole foods.

Whole foods like fruit, starchy vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, oats, beans, and even milk and yogurt are great sources of quality carbohydrates. Since they’re packaged with fiber and/or protein, these foods provide more sustainable energy and satiety than highly refined carbohydrates like sweets, sugary beverages, white bread or rice, packaged snacks and chips. These whole or minimally processed foods also provide important nutrients like vitamins and minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients. Replace refined carbs with more of these kinds of foods to get the most nutritional bang for your buck.

2. Look beyond the “whole grain” label.

You’ve probably heard whole grains provide more vitamins, minerals and important nutrients than refined grains. But just because something is labeled “whole grain” doesn’t mean it’s made only from whole grains. With no whole grain labeling regulations in place, food manufacturers can use these healthy sounding words on their packaging when, in reality, these foods may only contain a small amount of vitamin and fiber-filled whole grains. When shopping for packaged grains like bread, pasta and cereal, beware of the following claims.

  • Whole grain, whole wheat or white wheat. Unless it says “100%”, it probably only contains a small amount of whole grain.
  • 100% natural. Natural is not synonymous with “whole grain” or “healthy.”
  • 7-grain. Heck, it could have 12 grains but it may also contain a fair amount of refined flour, too.

3. Look for a 10-to-1 carbohydrate-to-fiber ratio on the nutrition label.

For those carbs that come with a nutrition label (think: packaged bread, pasta, cereal, granola or cereal bars, crackers, etc.) look for options that provide at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of carbs.

For example: If there are 30 grams of carbohydrate in a slice of bread, that slice should contain at least 3 grams of fiber.

Why 10 to 1? That’s the approximate ratio of carbohydrate-to-fiber in a genuine whole grain.

4. Keep an eye out for added sugars.

Sugar is added to many packaged foods to retain moisture, add softness, sweetness and extend shelf life, but adds little nutritional value except empty calories. When food shopping, particularly for cereal, bread, crackers, beverages and even yogurt and condiments, it’s best to purchase options with little to no added sugar.

Big food manufacturers won’t be required to show “Added Sugar” information on nutrition labels until mid-2018, so they may be trickier to spot before then. Your best bet is to look at both the amount of sugar per serving as well as the ingredient label and to compare two or three brands or products. Keep in mind sugar has many different names, including (high fructose) corn syrup, (evaporated) cane juice, brown rice syrup, molasses, honey and most words ending in -ose (dextrose, maltose, etc.). Additionally, ingredients are listed by weight, so the farther down sugar is listed on the ingredient list, the less added sugar a food contains.

Related Article: 3 Simple Tips for Avoiding Added Sugar

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