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What Are Smart Carbohydrates?

By Robert Phillips ; Updated August 14, 2017

If you're confused about carbohydrates, you're likely not alone. The low-carbohydrate diet trend of the 1990s and early 2000s may have left you thinking that any carbohydrate is a bad carbohydrate. In reality, certain carbohydrates, sometimes referred to as "smart carbohydrates," actually support health, keep energy levels high and help in maintaining weight, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Learn how to identify them and improve the quality of your diet.

Smart Carbohydrates

The hallmark of healthy, smart carbohydrates is their vital nutrients and fiber content, which slows digestion and absorption, keeping blood glucose levels more stable. This is important for weight maintenance and diabetes prevention, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Healthy, smart carbohydrates are found in whole, plant-based foods like fruits and vegetables, minimally processed whole-grain products like oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa and whole-wheat bread as well as beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. White potatoes are one vegetable exception because their rich starch content can cause spikes in blood sugar despite their fiber content; sweet potatoes and beans are better options.

Smart Carbohydrates and Health

There are many benefits for including more healthy, smart carbohydrates in your diet. Appetite control and weight maintenance are among them as the fiber content in smart carbohydrates extends feelings of satiety and fullness. The body prefers carbohydrates as its primary source of energy, and smart carbohydrates are ideal as they release energy slowly. This supplies steady energy, unlike the quick bursts and crashes that come with highly processed carbohydrates. Regular consumption of smart carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and whole grains is strongly associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and even cancer, according to a study published in 2003 in the "American Journal of Clinical Nutrition."

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Processed Carbohydrates

Not all carbohydrates come with the many benefits of smart carbohydrates. Processed carbohydrates have been stripped of virtually all vital nutrients and fiber content during the refining process. They are digested and absorbed very quickly, leading to spikes in blood sugar. This, in turn, encourages weight gain, stimulates further hunger and increases risk for chronic diseases like type-2 diabetes, reports the Harvard School of Public Health. White-flour products such as white bread, pasta, sugary breakfast cereals, crackers, chips and other snack foods -- as well as sweets and sugary beverages -- all contain highly processed carbohydrates that should be limited or avoided due to their impact on health.

Choosing Carbohydrates

Many smart carbohydrates are easy to identify; vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds, for instance, are fairly obvious, but evaluating smart-grain carbohydrates is more of a challenge. Let the fiber content guide your decision. According to a Harvard Health Publications article, a whole-grain product should have at least 1 gram of fiber per 10 grams of carbohydrate; for example, a slice of whole-wheat bread containing 20 grams of carbohydrate should have at least 2 grams of fiber. Using the 10-to-1 rule can help you separate the real whole-grain, smart carbohydrates from the imposters. Further, always inspect the ingredients list to verify the words "whole-grain" come first.

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