We all know the story. Eating carbohydrates causes a spike in blood sugar, which results in a surge of insulin. Insulin shuttles all that extra sugar into your fat cells and you become obese. Over time, your poor helpless organs become resistant to insulin and you develop type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, thereby shortening your life by 7 years.
All of that is true.
The story is more complicated, however, because all carbs are not created equal.
I’m not here to tell you sugar and flour won’t make you fat, they will. But unrefined foods that just happen to be slightly higher in starch or sugar don’t, in reasonable quantities, elicit giant blood sugar spikes or abnormally high insulin levels.
Instead, unprocessed carbohydrates generate gentle, moderate rises in your blood glucose and insulin, giving you a small but long-lasting supply of energy your muscles can use for several hours. This is what is supposed to happen when you eat nourishing food, and normal healthy people have no reason to fear it.
(In my experience, eating intact grains can even curb sugar cravings and help you avoid those late night slip ups that undo all your progress and riddle you with guilt.)
So what are these magical carbs that don’t make you fat? Pretty much anything you can find in nature. If it comes in a box and has a prominent “whole grain” sticker on it, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a license to gorge yourself on grains or any food. Eat enough of something, or eat it quickly, and you’ll still end up with more sugar in your blood than your body knows what to do with. But in moderate quantities you can eat from the following list without risking your life or growing out of your favorite jeans.
10 Tasty Carbs That Won’t Make You Fat
Some popular diets recommend limiting fruit because of its relatively high concentrations of sugar compared to other foods. However you can continue to lose weight even while eating fruit, so long as you don’t pig out on it. Fructose, the sugar in fruit, is bad for you not because it raises your blood sugar, but because it is converted to fat in the liver. However the relatively small amounts of fructose present in whole fruit is nothing to worry about.
Though beans are relatively rich in carbs, a substantial portion of it is fiber and the overall glycemic load is pretty low. Beans are also an excellent source of iron, protein and folate, as well as essential minerals.
Oatmeal is tricky because Quaker and other companies have somehow convinced us that cooking real oats is too hard and time consuming for any civilized human being. This conveniently allows them to mark up the prices on their instant, pre-sweetened varieties that are closer to dessert than they are to a healthy breakfast. But in reality real rolled oats are low calorie, high fiber, and not fattening in the least. They also cook up in minutes.
Have you ever checked the label of plain yogurt and wondered how all that sugar got in there? No you’re not crazy, it’s just that the FDA nutrition labels don’t distinguish between added sugar (sucrose or fructose) and naturally occurring sugars like lactose, the sugar in milk. In reasonable quantities and without added sugars (read labels carefully), unsweetened dairy products will not usually contribute to fat accumulation.
Like beans, lentils are full of fiber and digest slowly. If anything, adding lentils to your diet will likely help you lose weight, not make you gain it.
One of my favorite foods, farro is a dense and chewy grain with a thick husk and rich flavor. Although it is a grain, farro is very filling and a little goes a long way. No need to spike your blood sugar with this stuff.
Though people often cite wine and alcohol as having a lot of calories, your body digests alcohol calories different than sugar calories and they have virtually no impact on glycemic response. Though there are many reasons to keep your wine portions under control, sharing the occasional bottle won’t stop you from losing weight.
Technically a seed and not a grain, quinoa (keen-wah) is a good source of protein and fiber, and has a very low glycemic index. It’s also high in iron, has a complete amino acid profile (great for vegetarians) and cooks in almost no time.
9. Brown rice
A lot of people claim to dislike brown rice, but cooked properly it can be a beautiful addition to almost any meal. A small serving of brown rice can make your salads, stir fries and other vegetable dishes more satisfying, while not forcing that big blood sugar spike you’d get from eating bread.
This may surprise you, but moderate amounts of potatoes cooked in healthy oils (not processed vegetable oils) won’t make you fat. Potatoes are actually fairly high in iron, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and minerals, making them a healthy alternative to other starches so long as you don’t go nuts.
What are your favorite healthy carbs?
Originally published March 21, 2011.