According to a large and growing body of research, this swap could help you lower your risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes, lower your chance of dying from heart disease or stroke, and help you lose weight without counting calories.
While it sounds simple, for many people it will be a big change. These high-quality carbohydrates make up only 9 percent of all the calories Americans consume.
For most people, low-quality and processed carbohydrates are staple foods. They make up 42 percent of all the calories Americans consume. They include the packaged foods that dominate many supermarket shelves and household tables, such as white bread, cakes, pasta, bagels, chips, crackers, and foods with added sugars. such as breakfast cereals, flavored yogurts, desserts, juices, and soft drinks.
What happens when you swap processed carbs for high-quality carbs?
Studies show that the fiber in these foods has multiple benefits. Promotes satiety, which helps you feel full. It nourishes the microbes that make up your gut microbiome, which can reduce inflammation and protect against chronic disease. And improves blood sugar control and cholesterol levels.
A large meta-analysis on the lancet examined the health effects of eating different types of carbohydrates. The analysis, based on data collected from 4,635 people in 58 clinical trials, showed that adults who ate the highest levels of whole grains, vegetables and other fiber-rich carbohydrates had a 15 to 31 percent reduction in diabetes, colorectal cancer and the risk of dying from stroke or heart disease compared with people who ate the lowest amounts of these foods.
They also lost more weight, “despite not being told to eat less or be more physically active,” said Andrew Reynolds, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Otago Medical School and co-author of the research.
Why are processed carbs so bad for you?
On average, Americans eat five servings a day of refined grain foods, such as white bread and pasta, and only one serving a day of whole grain foods, such as brown rice and barley, said Fang Fang Zhang, a nutrition epidemiologist at the Friedman School. of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University and author of a study in JAMA which examined the types of carbohydrates and macronutrients Americans eat.
In her research, Zhang found that Americans have reduced their consumption of sugary soft drinks and other foods with added sugar, thanks to growing public awareness of sugar’s harmful health effects.
But at the same time, we’ve been eating more and more refined grain foods, partly because they’re so ubiquitous.
“We are seeing a general trend towards more consumption of refined grains,” Zhang said. “With refined grains we are not reaching our goal.”
These foods have been stripped of their fiber, vitamins and minerals and industrially converted into flour and sugar. This causes them to be absorbed quickly by the body, causing insulin and blood sugar levels to spike and activating reward regions in the brain, all of which can lead to cravings, overeating, and a cascade of metabolic changes that lead to to poor health.
Healthy carbs are those that have not been highly processed and stripped of their natural fiber. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are high in fiber and packed with nutrients that promote health and help protect against heart disease and other leading causes of death.
Here’s how to change your carbs
If your goal is to lose weight and improve your metabolic health, you don’t need to count calories or follow a restrictive diet. Just start by eliminating empty carbs from your diet. Here is how to do it:
Cut white foods. Reduce consumption of foods such as cereals, pastries, white bread, white pasta, juices, sugary drinks and other foods with added sugar.
Add healthy carbs. It is simple. Eat more vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils.
Add healthy fats and proteins: After getting rid of those empty carbs, some people feel better by replacing them with foods high in fat and protein, such as nuts, seeds, avocados, eggs, poultry, yogurt, and shellfish.
Add healthy grains: Try to replace white and highly processed carbohydrates with whole grains, whole wheat breads, beans, peas, lentils, legumes, quinoa, fruits, vegetables, and other unrefined carbohydrates.
Bring higher quality “nutrient dense” foods back into your diet. These foods carry different labels that can help you identify them. Look for descriptors like “minimally processed,” “seasonal,” “grass-fed,” “whole grain,” and “pasture-raised.”
It may be hard at first to cut back on some of your favorite refined carbs, but you won’t feel as hungry if you replace them with high-fiber carbs and healthy fats.
Why is the quality of your carbohydrates important?
In a randomized trial that was published in JAMAOverweight people who were advised to reduce added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods for a year lost weight, not counting calories, and showed improvements in blood sugar levels and blood pressure .
This approach worked whether people were on a relatively low-fat or relatively low-carb diet. The findings showed that for weight loss, the quality of the diet outweighed the quantity of the diet, said Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has studied the effects of different diets on metabolic health and weight loss.
If you want to eat a healthier diet, your first step, he said, should be to “get rid of empty carbohydrate calories that only come with glucose and no fiber, vitamins or minerals.”
He recommends replacing those foods with what he calls a “core diet” rich in plant foods that are eaten by cultures around the world, such as beans, nuts, seeds, and vegetables.
In Latin American cuisine, red, black, and pinto beans are staple foods. In the Middle East, people have been using chickpeas and sesame seeds to make hummus and other dishes for centuries. In India, red and yellow lentils can be found in delicious dals, soups, and stews. And in the Mediterranean, many dishes incorporate things like broad beans, cannellini beans, and peas.
“Americans eat a surprisingly low amount of beans, nuts and seeds,” he said. “We should eat more like these other cultures around the world.”
Do you have any questions about healthy eating? Email EatingLab@washpost.com and we can answer your question in a future column.