June 14, 2024

Complex carbohydrates like whole fruits and vegetables or whole grains are considered healthy carbs—among the healthiest ones to eat. Complex carbs are made from simple sugars connected together and are helpful for energy and feeling full after eating.

While refined carbs and added sugar are linked to increased risk of health conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, some healthy-carb foods are incredibly nutritious and can protect your health. Here are 10 high-carb foods you should keep in your diet and simple, healthy ways to enjoy them.  

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Brown rice is a gluten-free whole grain rich in antioxidants. A one-cup serving of brown rice contains 51.7 grams (g) of carbs, and that same serving size contains 5.54g of protein and 3.23g of fiber.

Research has shown that eating brown rice can help prevent weight gain and reduce factors that increase the risk of developing heart disease, including:

Brown rice can be enjoyed in both sweet and savory dishes. At breakfast, combine it with fruit, nuts, and cinnamon, or add it to a breakfast scramble made with veggies and eggs, tofu, or chickpeas.

You can also use brown rice as the base for grain bowls or add it to salads, soups, sushi, and stir-fries. Combine brown rice with beans and/or corn, veggies, and avocado for a southwest dish. Brown rice can also be incorporated into treats, like brown rice pudding or crispy puffed brown rice crackers.

While fruits have various amounts of carbs per serving, they also have nutrients like folate, potassium, and fiber. Eating fiber-rich whole fruits is associated with benefits such as:

  • Increased intake of important vitamins and minerals
  • Long-term weight management
  • Protection against a number of chronic diseases and health conditions, such as digestive issues or colorectal and lung cancers

The recommended fruit intake is 1.5-2 cups per day, and the best fruit choices are whole fruits, which can be fresh or frozen. Blend fruits into smoothies, add berries or kiwi to oatmeal, or snack on a sliced apple or banana paired with nuts or nut butter.

You can also toss pear slices into a salad, add mango or pineapple to slaw, and incorporate citrus to stir-fries. For a healthy dessert dip, mix fresh fruit into melted dark chocolate.

Even though maple syrup is best enjoyed in moderation—one tablespoon contains 13g of carbs—one review concluded that maple syrup is preferable to refined sugar. That’s because of its high concentration of phenolic antioxidants and minerals, like potassium, calcium, zinc, and manganese.

Maple syrup is also a source of a prebiotic called inulin. Prebiotics help feed beneficial gut bacteria and enhance nutrient absorption. They also help improve gut barrier health, improve immune function, and reduce the risk of allergies.

Maple syrup can sweeten coffee, tea, oatmeal, or overnight oats. It can also be used as an ingredient in salad dressing, stir-fry sauces, granola, candied nuts, baked beans, roasted vegetables, or desserts like chia pudding or chocolate truffles.   

Millet is a gluten-free, whole grain with 74g of carbs per 100g and rich in nutrients and antioxidants. Besides being fiber-rich, millet also provides protein and minerals, including phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, calcium, zinc, and iron. Research has also shown that millet can help:

  • Improve your digestive system’s well-being
  • increase your energy levels and support your muscles
  • Reduce cholesterol, protect against heart disease, diabetes, and cancer

Millet can be enjoyed as a hot breakfast porridge or in any way you would use quinoa or brown rice. Add it to salads, bowls, chili, stews, and soups, or combine it with vegetables as a stuffing for bell peppers, mushrooms, eggplant, or zucchini. You can also incorporate it in energy balls, pancakes, cornbread, and baked goods.

Oats contain 69.8g of carbohydrates per 100g serving. They are another type of whole grain that has been shown to contain compounds that uniquely support immune function. These include beta-glucans, a type of fiber; minerals like copper and zinc; polyphenolic antioxidants; and glutamine, a type of protein.

A research review concluded that these oat-based nutrients help optimize the immune system’s response to infections, including cold and flu viruses. They also support a healthy gut microbiome, which also plays a role in immune function.

Beta-glucan can also affect cholesterol and blood sugar. It’s the major active compound proven to help lower cholesterol and regulate blood sugar.

You can blend oats into smoothies or enjoy hot oatmeal or chilled overnight oats. Rolled oats can also be used as a garnish, topping, or crust. You can also incorporate oats into energy balls, pancakes, bread, and baked goods. To make a simple crumble for warmed fruit, combine rolled oats with almond butter, cinnamon, and a touch of maple syrup.   

Potatoes are important sources of several nutrients, including 17g of carbs per 100g serving, fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin C, vitamin B6, folate, iron, thiamin, and multiple antioxidants. Among fruits and vegetables, potatoes have the third highest total phenolic content (a type of antioxidant) after oranges and apples.

Potatoes also contain a unique type of carbohydrate called resistant starch (RS). RS gets fermented in the gut, producing short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)—compounds linked to improved physical and mental well-being. Research has indicated a connection between RS and the prevention and control of diseases like diabetes.

Enjoy potatoes baked, oven roasted, sautéed, or cooked in foil on the grill. Top baked potatoes with healthy toppings, including vegetarian chili, hummus, tomato sauce, vegan pesto, guacamole, olive tapenade, herbed tahini, or vegetables sautéed in extra virgin olive oil.   

Pulses—including all types of beans, lentils, peas, and chickpeas—are rich in carbs. They also provide fiber, protein, antioxidants, and important vitamins and minerals like calcium, magnesium, zinc, and B vitamins.

One research review concluded that pulses could play a key role in eliminating the underconsumption of fiber and potassium and could also help support healthy weight management.

You can use pulses instead of meat in soups, stews, chili, salads, and tacos. You can also puree pulses into hummus or white bean dip or serve them as side dishes, like herbed lentils and oven-roasted chickpeas.   

A cup of cooked quinoa has 39g of carbs; quinoa also contains nutrients such as fiber, protein, magnesium, and phosphorus. It’s categorized as a whole grain, but it’s technically a pseudo-cereal because its seeds have a similar nutritional composition to other cereal grains.

Researchers have found that quinoa consumption helped reduce triglyceride levels and the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in individuals with obesity. Another study randomly assigned people with prediabetes to consume either quinoa or a placebo. After 28 days, the participants eating quinoa experienced reductions in:

  • Body mass index (BMI)
  • Fasting blood sugar
  • Levels of HbA1c, a measure of how well blood sugar has been controlled over the previous three-month period

Like millet and oats, quinoa can be enjoyed as a hot breakfast porridge topped with nuts, seeds, and fruit or added to pancakes or breakfast scrambles. You can also add cooked quinoa to smoothies, salads, and soups or serve it as a side dish mixed with vegetables and herbs. Quinoa also makes a nutritious addition to cookies, muffins, and other baked goods or dark chocolate bark.  

Though they have 17g of carbs per 100g serving, sweet potatoes provide fiber and an extensive range of micronutrients. Those nutrients include several minerals (manganese, copper, potassium, and iron) and vitamins (B vitamins and vitamins A, C, and E).

Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds. They are known to help prevent cancer and metabolic disorders, protect the liver and heart, and improve neurological and memory capacity and intestinal barrier function.

Use slices of oven roasted sweet potato instead of bread and top with nut butter or mashed avocado. Add cubed sweet potatoes to salads, soups, and stews. You can also blend sweet potato puree into smoothies, oatmeal, energy balls, and healthy desserts, such as a simple sweet potato pudding made with plant milk, maple syrup, and spices.      

The amount of carbs in a serving of vegetables varies. One cup of raw spinach provides just 1g of carbohydrates compared to 6.04g in a cup of raw broccoli and 13g in one cup of raw beets.

Most vegetables are rich in nutrients like fiber, potassium, and several vitamins but low in calories compared to the same size portions of foods from other food groups. In addition to eating the right amount each day, consuming a wide variety of vegetables has been shown to:

  • Improve brain function
  • Improve overall diet quality
  • Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes

Eat an array of vegetable colors and types and buy or grow seasonal vegetables to expand variety. Aim for one cup of veggies in every breakfast, lunch, and dinner meal, or build them into snacks.  

Depending on your age, sex, health, physical activity level, and weight management goals, 45% to 65% of your calories can come from carbohydrates to meet your body’s fuel needs. At 2,000 calories per day, that would be a minimum of 225g and a maximum of 325g of carbohydrates per day, or 180g to 260g at 1,600 calories.     

In addition, one research review of 61 previously published studies did not show that low‐carbohydrate weight‐reducing diets are superior to balanced‐carbohydrate weight‐reducing diets. In fact, there was little or no difference in either weight reduction or heart disease risk factors over the short (three to eight and a half months) or long-term (one to two years).

Whole-food, healthy carbs, mostly made of whole grains, vegetables, and fruit, provide your body with plenty of nutrients and health benefits. For instance, you can get fiber, antioxidants, and a range of vitamins, minerals, and health benefits, including weight management or decreased risks of certain conditions.

Talk with a healthcare provider for personalized guidance regarding the type and amount of carbohydrates that are best for your body’s needs. While everyone’s needs will vary, you’ll want to ensure you get enough of healthy carbs.

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