This list of healthy carbohydrates is the follow-up to my post about good protein sources and Tobias’ two posts about how to calculate your daily calorie need and macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates). Together with my post about healthy fats, the full series should give you a good idea about how to structure a good diet and what foods to include.
What Are Healthy Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates can be classified based on their rate of glycemic response (meaning their conversion to glucose within the human body). Pure sugar is the highest, with a glycemic index of 100, while more slowly digested carbs such as brown rice have a glycemic index of 50.
I have divided the list of healthy carbohydrate sources below into “Low Glycemic” and “High Glycemic” carbohydrates. I recommend that you generally stick with low glycemic carbohydrates, since they won’t spike your blood sugars, leave you full longer and minimize fat storage. The only time high glycemic carbs are preferable is right after a hard workout, where you need to re-fill your body’s glycogen stores quickly.
I’m not a fan of cutting carbohydrates completely out of a diet, as your body and brain need a minimum amount of carbs to function optimally. However, limiting or cycling carbs can help tremendously with weight loss (especially for people with diabetes, as I talk about in this post). Carb cycling means that you switch between days with very few carbs and days with more carbs to keep you metabolism high. It’s a technique I often use in meal plans for people who are trying to lose weight.
In addition to the healthy carbohydrates below, you’ll also get healthy carbohydrates from fresh vegetables like salad, asparagus, broccoli, etc. When I create meal plans, I generally consider most vegetables to be “free” food, in the sense that I don’t count the calories or macros in my daily total. You can eat as much salad and broccoli as you like, unless you are on a VERY strict diet, such as prepping for a fitness competition.
The calories and macros for each carbohydrate below are for a 3 oz. serving. For some of them, you probably wouldn’t eat 3 oz., but I wanted to keep the serving sizes the same for consistency.
Low Glycemic Healthy Carbohydrates
Brown rice (Cooked: 95 calories, 2g protein, 20g carbs, 0g fat): Brown rice is the top carb choice for many fitness professionals. If you don’t know what else to eat, you can always cook brown rice, chicken, and veggies. I prefer the medium-grained brown rice because of their taste and because they hold water really well. That’s important to me since I often make a big batch and store it in the fridge or freeze it. If it didn’t hold water, it would become super dry when reheated (or simply eaten cold). Good recipe: Marinated Steak with Rice and Broccoli.
Sweet potato (Cooked: 65 calories, 1g protein, 15g carbs, 0g fat): Sweet potato was not something I really knew before moving to the US, but now it’s one of my favorite carbohydrates. Don’t be scared by the name. Sweet potatoes actually have a lower glycemic index than normal white potatoes and, therefore, won’t spike your blood sugar as much. I like sweet potatoes boiled, as hash, or baked as fries (who doesn’t like healthy fries?). Like rice, it’s an excellent carbohydrate for when on the go, since it will keep fresh in a Tupperware for hours.
Quinoa (Cooked: 103 calories, 4g protein, 18g carbs, 2g fat): Quinoa is one of those foods that I both love and hate. I love it because is super easy to make, taste great, and is a good diet food. I hate it because I don’t feel like it gives me as much energy as rice or sweet potato for the same amount of calories. I use quinoa for dieting but not for muscle building. Good recipe: Marinated Turkey Breast With Quinoa.
Oats (Uncooked: 320 calories, 14g protein, 57g carbs, 6g fat): I absolutely love oats for breakfast and in a lot of baked snacks. I find that I get a steady blood sugar increase when combining oats with a good lean protein source, and they keep me full for hours. It’s important to choose oats that have been processed as little as possible, so go for “old-fashioned” or “steel cut” oats. Good recipes: Low carb Pancakes and Healthy High-Protein Cake Batter Mousse and Baked Oatmeal Cinnamon Roll.
Apples (50 calories, 0g protein, 13g carbs, 0g fat): If I don’t have oats for breakfast, I’ll usually have an apple instead. Including fruit as a low glycemic carb might seem a little odd, but it actually only scores a 38 on the glycemic index. I have also found that the high fiber content in Fuji apples makes them not just tasty but also very filling. It’s also a nice sweet option without having to add any sweetener. I often have a medium sized apple with an egg white omelet and nut butter for breakfast. Good recipe: Chicken Salad with Apples
High Glycemic Healthy Carbohydrates
Banana (76 calories, 1g protein, 20g carbs, 0g fat): I think bananas sometimes get a bad rep, but I’m almost as obsessed with bananas as the Minions from Despicable Me 😀 . They are such a tasty combination of good carbohydrates and creamy goodness. Bananas are great for post-workout snacks and shakes, but they are high in calories, so watch how much you eat. Good recipe: Banana Strawberry Shake.
White rice (Cooked: 111 calories, 2g protein, 24g carbs, 0g fat): White rice combined with a protein source is actually a great post-workout snack. White rice has a higher glycemic index than brown rice (64) so it’s a better option post-workout, as you want the quick energy and insulin spike. Another great benefit is that it tastes really good 😀
Glucose tablets (319 calories, 0g protein, 85g carbs, 0g fat): As mentioned, sugar (fructose) is a pure 100 on the glycemic index, so this really gets converted to glucose in the body super fast. As a diabetic, glucose tablets is what I reach for if I need to increase my blood sugar quickly.
These are only a small portion of the available carbohydrate sources, but they are the ones I recommend and include in my own diet. As mentioned, I don’t believe in eliminating carbohydrates completely from my diet, but I will reduce them when trying to lose fat and increase them when trying to build muscle.
Enjoy your healthy carbohydrates. They are good for you!
If you haven’t already, remember to also check out my post about good high-protein foods.