Carbs are not bad, so let's leave that idea at the door. Along with fat and protein, carbohydrates are essential macronutrients; they give us energy. They're fuel for our central nervous system and muscles, and when we engage in vigorous activity, we burn through our carb stores. Our brain needs blood glucose from carbs to function, and having chronically low carb levels causes fatigue. Complex carbs are preferable for sustained energy, but eating refined carbs in moderation should be fine unless a doctor advises otherwise.
In general, women should consume 2,000 total calories per day, and the recommended caloric intake for men is 2,500 calories. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that 45% to 65% of daily calories should come from carbs, which exist in grains, beans, and even vegetables. This works out to at least 225 grams of carbs daily for women and up to 406 grams for men.
Whole grains are preferable to refined grains for their additional nutrients and positive effects on insulin and cholesterol levels; half of the grains you consume should come from whole grain sources such as whole wheat, whole oats, and whole cornmeal.
Refined grain products include corn grits, white flour, white bread, and white rice, and they may be enriched, meaning nutrients removed during processing are added back in. Broad strokes aside, half a cup of cornmeal has 47 grams of carbs. It's gluten-free (which is not necessary unless you're intolerant or have celiac disease) and contains vitamin B6 and folate.
Technically, buckwheat is not a grain, but it's very similar from a food and nutrition perspective. A cup of cooked groats is a stellar source of insoluble fiber to keep you regular, and you'll get 34 grams of carbs and double the protein of oatmeal. Buckwheat flour is gluten-free and has 44 grams of carbs per half cup.
Amaranth is another gluten-free pseudocereal that isn't technically a grain. Half a cup of cooked amaranth will give you 23 grams of carbs and more essential amino acids than other grains—all nine, in fact. Amaranth is a popular breakfast porridge, but compared to cornmeal and buckwheat, for example, it's a high-GI food, so it might not be a good fit for certain health conditions.
Quinoa has long been a darling of the plant-based world. It's a seed that looks like a grain. Like amaranth, it provides all nine essential amino acids and heart-healthy fatty acids, and a cup of cooked quinoa offers 39 grams of complex carbs. Quinoa is a low-GI food, so it won't cause a sharp spike and fall in your blood glucose levels.
Millet is a gluten-free whole grain you can use as a rice alternative, like you'd use quinoa. Add the hulled pearl variety to soups and salads. One cup of cooked millet will give you approximately 41.2 grams of carbs, and a cup of millet flour offers 89.4 grams of carbs.
Spelt is a whole grain, and an ancient one at that. A quarter cup of raw spelt flour contains about 22 grams of carbs, and you can use it as a substitute for regular flour. It's low-GI, but it's also low in protein compared to other grains on this list and unsuitable for a gluten-free diet.
Barley is an ancient grain, and most of what's grown in America is for animal feed and malt for alcohol. But barley is affordable, has a long shelf-life, and makes a healthy side dish. One cup of cooked pearled barley offers 44.3 grams of carbs, and barley flour provides 110 grams of carbohydrates per cup.
You may have heard of marathon runners "carbo-loading" on pasta before race day to ensure they have enough fuel in the tank. Pasta is high in carbs. A cup of cooked whole-wheat spaghetti provides 37 grams of carbs compared to one cup of refined spaghetti, which has 43 grams. Whole-grain pasta has more fiber than refined pasta and helps you feel full for longer.
Cassavas are root vegetables. You must soak and cook cassava before eating, or it can be toxic. Cooked cassava is similar to a potato, and 100 grams or 3.5 ounces will give you 40 grams of carbs. One serving should provide you with a third of your vitamin C for the day, and here's a fun fact—the tapioca pearls or boba in bubble tea come from starch from the cassava root.
Wild rice is native to North America's waterways and tastes earthier than regular rice. Like other whole grains, it's a good source of fiber and can improve your gut microbiome and cardiovascular health. A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked wild rice provides 21.3 grams of carbs. Wild rice is a low-GI food full of minerals you need, like phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc.
Potatoes often come to mind when someone mentions the word carbs, but how much do they really contribute to your carb intake? A medium, baked russet potato contains about 37 grams of carbs. Despite developing a reputation to the contrary, potatoes are healthy and are a good source of vitamin C and potassium, among other nutrients.
These days, sweet potatoes are seen as better for your wellness than potatoes, but they both have their perks. The former has more vitamin A, and the latter has more potassium. A large sweet potato weighing about 180 grams contains 37 grams of carbs, just like an ordinary potato.
Plantains or cooking bananas are humble superfoods. The green ones are not sweet, and their resistant starch content means they're low-GI and excellent for gut health. One cup of boiled green plantains contains 40 grams of carbohydrates. Like potatoes, they're a source of vitamin C and B6. You can eat ripe plantains raw.
Oatmeal is a gluten-free whole grain high in the soluble fiber known as beta-glucan, which is a boon for heart health. Half a cup of dry rolled oats, which makes a cup of cooked oatmeal, provides 28 grams of complex carbs. It's a low-GI food, but in flour form, it has a higher glycemic value.
A cup of cooked lentils offers about 40 grams of carbs. Lentils are a low-GI food and a good source of fiber. They're best eaten with whole grains; together, these foods provide a significant proportion of the amino acids in plant-based diets.
This affordable legume's carbs are also in the form of beneficial resistant starch, which means they're digested slowly in a way that's better for your body. Black beans are also a good source of protein and iron in plant-based diets. Half a cup of canned black beans has 20 grams of carbs.
A medium banana contains approximately 27 grams of mainly complex carbs. Bananas are high in fiber and potassium, but the riper the banana, the less fiber it has. This fruit is considered low-GI. It's an excellent source of prebiotics, so eating them with probiotics like yogurt should improve your gut health.
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