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Healthy Eating: Does it Include Carbohydrates?

By Carol Witte, RDN, Director of Nutrition  Services and Senior Centers

In recent years, several diet fads have recommended the reduction, or even elimination, of carbohydrates from our usual diets. But are “low carb” diets good for older adults?

While reductions of certain types of simple sugar carbohydrates are beneficial, removing or reducing all carbohydrates is not. Many studies support that consistent consumption of whole grain carbs can help lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain types of cancer. In addition, many starchy vegetables like winter squash, sweet potatoes, peas and beans are packed with nutrients and anti-oxidants. Carbohydrates are also found in all fruits and many dairy products which are healthy and important to include in a balanced diet!

Best Carbohydrate Choices
All carbohydrates provide calories, however, the best choices also provide vitamins, minerals and fiber. Examples of these nutrient-rich foods include whole-grain bread, pasta and cereal, brown rice, potatoes, squash, fruit, peas and beans. Sweets and other sources of added sugars are better reserved for an occasional treat, since they don’t offer nutrition beyond energy and sugar. These “occasional treats” include candy, cakes and cookies. Be mindful of surprising sources of added sugars including flavored yogurts, fruit drinks and sports drinks. The grams of sugar can quickly add up. Low-fat and fat-free milk is a healthy drink with a naturally occurring form of carbohydrate called lactose. Chocolate and strawberry milk are a tasty treat, but contain added sugars. White milk is the best choice.

What about Gluten Intolerance?
Gluten-free eating should not be the goal for everyone. Individuals with gluten intolerance or celiac disease must avoid all sources of gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten-free products are common in grocery stores and restaurants, making it easier to navigate these restrictions for individuals who must comply with gluten-free eating. Remember, just because something is listed as gluten free it does NOT mean that it is a healthy choice. It may still have simple sugars with extra empty calories.

Reaching Daily Fiber Needs
While white bread, noodles and white rice are another group of foods that are sources of carbohydrates, they are not your best carbohydrate choice. They are refined, making them lower in fiber and other essential nutrients. A whole grain is in the complete originally harvested state which includes the fiber rich bran, the nutrient packed germ and the endosperm of the grain. Whole grains contain vitamins, trace minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals in addition to fiber. They are usually high in folate, thiamin, iron, niacin, riboflavin, selenium, magnesium and zinc. Focusing on whole grains over refined grains and whole fruits instead of juice, plus vegetables is the easy way to achieve the recommended goal of 25-30 grams of fiber each day.

High-Quality Carbohydrate Foods May Foster Weight Control
Eating fewer carbohydrates may produce weight loss, but including certain carbohydrate-containing foods actually helps promote a healthy weight, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Whole grains, such as brown rice, are digested more slowly than refined grains such as white rice, possibly preventing hunger. And a New England Journal of Medicine study found that adults who increased their intake of whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables over the course of 20 years gained less weight than those who didn’t.

We Need Carbohydrates
Foods including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, milk and yogurt are abundant in nutrients and these carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source. More than 29 million Americans live with diabetes, both diagnosed and undiagnosed. Changing eating habits can be the most challenging aspect of diabetes self-management, but diabetes is manageable. Even individuals with diabetes should have carbohydrates. Experts recommend that about 40-50 percent of a diabetic person’ calories should come from carbs. Managing diabetes means maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. Along with proper medication and physical activity, this also requires balancing the foods you eat.

In Conclusion
To sum it up, you should:

  • Eat a variety of foods, including healthy carbohydrates.
  • Make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Choose whole fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat less fat.
  • Cut the salt.
  • Avoid skipping meals.
  • Watch portions to manage your calorie intake.