Complex Carbohydrates

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All carbohydrates are not created equal. Although some are wonderful sources of energy and essential nutrients, others are simply a sweet waste of calories. What are the best carbohydrates and how should you choose them? This simple guide can help you decide.

Understanding the difference

The health benefits of complex carbohydrates -- foods high in starch -- are well established. So is the absence of vitamins and minerals in sweets and refined carbohydrates such as candy, cakes and soft drinks. The important difference between these two types of carbohydrates is the range of nutrition they provide.

Complex carbohydrates are found in nearly all foods of plant origin: fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. These foods, especially when they are only slightly refined, are often high in “nutrient density.” This term compares the overall nutritive value of the ingredients found in the food to its energy (calorie) content. Because they contain vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fiber, in addition to energy, complex carbohydrates are a highly recommended part of a healthful diet. On the other hand, foods that have had most of its natural goodness refined away are low in nutrient density, supply little or nothing besides calories, and should be avoided in large quantities.

Nutrition experts stress that a sedentary lifestyle and tendency toward gaining weight mean that most of us cannot afford too many calories unaccompanied by essential nutrients, the so-called empty calories. Eating low-density foods may either prevent us from meeting our nutritional needs, or may cause us to go over our limit in calories to achieve needed levels of nutrients.

A preference for sweetened and refined foods seem to be a major factor in our diet. Even though, as a rule, complex carbohydrates are nutritionally superior to simple sugars, there are “good” and “poor” choices to be made in either category. For example, although the carbohydrate in milk products (lactose) and that in fruits (fructose or glucose) is considered a simple sugar, these sugars are outweighed by the presence of many other important nutrients. Milk contains calcium, high-quality protein, vitamin A, D and B12, and other nutrients as well. Fruits and vegetables are excellent food choices in terms of the vitamins and minerals and fiber they provide.

Making your choice

The following are some of the good carbohydrate foods from which you should choose.

Fruits and vegetables

Be sure to include those high in Vitamin C and A (citrus, melon, carrots, turnips, broccoli, spinach, etc.). If you are trying to lose weight, baked and boiled potatoes are better than French-fried, which add calories because of the oil in which they are cooked. The skins of baked potatoes or boiled new potatoes provide fiber.

Corn

Fresh corn, grits, cornmeal are good for you. Popcorn (without salt, butter or oil) is a filling low-calorie snack.

Legumes

Dried peas and beans provide excellent protein when eaten with grain products.

Cereals and bread

Whole grains are slightly preferred, but enriched varieties are also healthful and usually will better resist spoilage.

Rice and pasta

Brown rice may be slightly more nutritious than converted rice. However, converted rice is also fine. Pasta is available in many varieties, including high-protein and whole-wheat kinds.

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