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Figuring out the best diet for optimal health is not easy for many people. However, studies show that almost anyone can lose weight and improve their health with a simple change in their diet.
The trick: Avoid processed carbohydrates and replace them with high-quality carbohydrates. This includes fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, quinoa, and whole grains like brown rice, barley, farro, and oatmeal.
According to a large and growing body of research, this one swap could help you lower your risk of cancer and type 2 diabetes, lessen your chance of dying from heart disease or stroke, and help you shed pounds without counting calories.
Even if it sounds simple, it will be a big change for many people. These high-quality carbohydrates make up just 9 percent of all calories Americans consume.
For most people, processed, low-quality carbohydrates are staple foods. They make up 42 percent of all calories Americans consume. This includes packaged foods, which dominate many supermarket shelves and household dining tables, such as white bread, pastries, pasta, bagels, chips, crackers, and foods with added sugar, such as breakfast cereals, flavored yogurt, desserts, juices, and soft drinks.
What happens when you swap processed carbs for quality carbs?
Studies show that the fiber in these foods has several benefits. It promotes satiety, which makes you feel full. It feeds the microbes that make up your gut microbiome, which can reduce inflammation and protect against chronic disease. And it improves your blood sugar control and cholesterol levels
A major meta-analysis in the Lancet examined the health effects of eating different types of carbohydrates. The analysis, based on data collected from 4,635 people in 58 clinical trials, showed that adults who ate the highest amounts of whole grains, vegetables, and other high-fiber carbohydrates experienced a 15 to 31 percent reduction in diabetes, colon cancer, and their risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease compared to people who ate the lowest amounts of these foods.
They also lost more weight — “although they weren’t told to eat less or get more physical activity,” said Andrew Reynolds, a nutritional epidemiologist at Otago Medical School and a co-author of the study.
Why are processed carbs so bad for you?
On average, Americans eat five servings of foods with refined grains, like white bread and pasta, and only one serving of whole grains, like brown rice and barley, every day, said Fang Fang Zhang, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University and author a study in JAMA that looked at the types of carbohydrates and macronutrients Americans consume.
In her research, Zhang found that Americans have reduced their intake of sugary sodas and other foods with added sugar, thanks to growing public awareness of sugar’s adverse health effects.
But at the same time, we’re eating more and more foods with refined grains, partly because they’re so ubiquitous.
“We’re seeing a general trend toward increased consumption of refined grains,” Zhang said. “We miss our target with refined grain.”
These foods have been stripped of fiber, vitamins and minerals and processed industrially into flour and sugar. This causes them to be rapidly absorbed by the body, causing spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels and activation of reward regions in the brain, all of which can lead to cravings, overeating, and a cascade of metabolic changes that lead to ill health to lead.
Healthy carbohydrates are those that have not been heavily processed and stripped of their natural fiber. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains are high in fiber and packed with health-promoting nutrients that help protect against heart disease and other major causes of death.
How to swap out your carbs
If your goal is to lose weight and improve your metabolic health, you don’t need to count calories or follow a restrictive diet. Just start eliminating the empty carbs from your diet. That’s how it’s done:
Cut out the white foods. Cut back on foods like cereal, pastries, white bread, white pasta, juices, sweetened beverages, and other foods with added sugar.
Add healthy carbohydrates. It’s easy. Eat more vegetables, whole grains, beans and lentils.
Add Healthy Fats and Proteins: After getting rid of those empty carbs, some people find that they feel better when they supplement them with foods higher in fat and protein such as nuts, seeds, avocado, eggs, poultry , yogurt and seafood.
Add Healthy Grains: Try replacing white and highly processed carbohydrates with whole grains, whole grain breads, beans, peas, lentils, legumes, quinoa, fruits, vegetables, and other unprocessed carbohydrates.
Add higher-quality, “nutrient-dense” foods back into your diet. These foods have different labels that can help you identify them. Look for descriptors such as minimally processed, seasonal, grass-fed, whole grain, and pasture-raised.
It may be difficult at first to cut back on some of your favorite refined carbs, but you won’t feel as hungry if you replace them with high-fiber carbs and healthy fats.
Why the quality of your carbohydrates matters
In a randomized study published in JAMA, overweight people who were advised to cut back on sugar, refined grains, and highly processed foods for a year lost weight — without counting calories — and showed improvements in their blood sugar and glucose levels blood pressure readings.
This approach worked regardless of whether people were following a diet that was relatively low in fat or relatively low in carbohydrates. The results showed that diet quality trumped diet quantity when it came to weight loss, said Christopher Gardner, the director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has studied the effects of different diets on metabolic health and weight loss.
If you want to eat healthier, your first step should be to “get rid of the empty carbohydrate calories that come with just glucose and no fiber, vitamins or minerals.”
He recommends replacing these foods with a “basic diet” rich in plant-based foods eaten by cultures around the world, such as beans, nuts, seeds and vegetables.
In Latin American cuisine, red, black, and pinto beans are staples. In the Middle East, people have used chickpeas and sesame seeds to prepare hummus and other dishes for centuries. In India, red and yellow lentils are found in delicious dals, soups and stews. And in the Mediterranean, many dishes include things like broad beans, cannellini beans, and peas.
“Americans eat appallingly few beans, nuts and seeds,” he said. “We should eat more like these other cultures around the world.”
Do you have a question about healthy eating? Email [email protected] and we may answer your question in a future column.
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