If you're watching your weight, or just trying to eat healthy, you may think carbohydrates are off-limits. It’s true that too many calories from carbohydrates (carbs, for short) can lead to weight gain, obesity and increased risk for diseases, including certain types of cancer like breast and colon cancer. And carbohydrates with a high glycemic index have been linked to increased lung cancer risk.
But carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet. Getting the right amount of the right kind of carbs can help you maintain a healthy weight – an important part of lowering your cancer risk.
We talked with Lindsey Wohlford, an MD Anderson wellness dietitian, to learn more about carbohydrates. Here’s what she had to say.
Three types of carbs
There are three types of carbohydrates. All three are very different and some are better for your health than others.
- Sugar: Sugars are carbs in their simplest forms. They can be naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Or they can be added to processed foods. Too much added sugar can lead to weight gain, obesity and an increased cancer risk.
- Starches: Starches are considered complex carbs. This means they are formed by multiple sugar units bonded together. Starches occur naturally in vegetables, grains and beans, like potatoes, quinoa and lentils. They also include grain-based products, such as pasta, crackers and bread. Naturally occurring starches can help stabilize blood sugar and provide feelings of fullness.
- Fiber: Fiber is found in the skeleton of plants. Fiber aids in digestion, either by helping food pass through the small intestine or by slowing down the digestion process, keeping you feeling full longer.
Complex carbohydrates, the healthy kind, should make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories.
Why do we need carbs?
Carbs are the main energy source for our body. Complex carbohydrates, the healthy kind, should make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. If we eat the right amount and the right kind of carbs then it can help with weight management. They keep you feeling full and give you the energy your body needs to function at its best.
What about no-carb diets?
By sticking to a no-carb diet you deprive yourself of the nutrients and an efficient fuel source. Plus, diets that require you to eliminate a certain type of food can be difficult to sustain in the long run.
Often when you cut carbs from your diet, you end up eating more protein. Protein is necessary to build healthy muscles but the best way to fuel our body is with a balance diet. One that includes plant based foods and lean proteins.
Get the most out of your carbohydrates
Follow these tips to make sure you’re getting the most out of your carbohydrates:
- Limit added sugars and processed foods
- Incorporate a variety of whole plant based foods This includes, beans, peas and lentils, raw or steamed fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
- Choose low-fat dairy products.
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