There has been one nutritional question which has plagued the human species for thousands of years: Should we eat this?
As human brains have increased in size, there’s still trepidation and ongoing conversations about whether or not carbohydrates are good for us. Mayo Clinic classifies carbs into three categories:
- Sugars– Simple form of carbohydrate, found in milk (lactose), fruits (fructose), table sugar (sucrose)
- Starches– Complex carbohydrate consisting of many sugar units bonded together. Good examples are potatoes, peas, corn, legumes, rice and grains.
- Fiber– Also a complex carbohydrate most commonly associated with fruits and vegetables, cooked beans, and some whole grains.
At the end of this article 5 high carb foods will be highlighted to cover the three categories.
No matter what category of carb you choose, it will be broken down into glucose, and glucose is sugar. With the popularity of the paleo diet, also known as caveman diet, carbohydrates don’t really have much of a home there. There’s some versions of the caveman diet that have condoned incorporating some forms of foods high in carbohydrates, but other diets like Atkins vilify carbohydrates. However, as more nutritional science is readily available and more people are beginning to measure their macronutrients— fats, proteins, and carbohydrates— it’s safe to say carbs are making a sweet comeback. It’s a good thing too, because our brains, teeth and digestive system owe a lot of gratitude to the carbohydrate, especially the complex starchy kind.
Incorporating high carb foods, like sweet potatoes, tubers, root vegetables, seeds, and certain types of fruits have assisted in the evolution process of humans. The University of Chicago published in the Quarterly Review of Biology an article co-written and researched by Dr. Karen Hardy and her team titled The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrates in Human Evolution which explores the significance of high carbohydrate foods—primarily starch— as a catalyst in how human brains developed and grew in size. The addition of carbs helped evolve the human digestive system by increasing salivary amylases to help in the digestion of starches so the body could reap the benefits of the increased blood glucose (sugar) levels after it’s digested. Glucose is useable energy and when hunting down prey for hours over miles and miles of land, humans needed foods high in carbohydrates to sustain their energy levels. When there’s the absence or minimal blood glucose levels in the body, the body will then starts to break down muscle protein to use the amino acids to replenish glucose levels. This breakdown is called catabolism. So carbs were pretty vital to our evolution.
Turns out the best way to consume your starchy carbohydrates is by cooking them, because the starch and be broken down to glucose quicker. Coincidently, Dr.Hardy hypothesized that with the development of cooking and greater need for carbohydrates in our ancestors diets, it kickstarted the evolution of bigger brains, smaller teeth and of course smarter humans.
So don’t you think it would be smart to eat carbohydrates? Save your muscles, eat some carbs?
Not so fast! Not all carbs are the same and equal. There’s a huge difference between eating a bagel and eating a sweet potato. Both are high in carbs, but one is better than the other. Before going into beneficial high carbs foods, we need to understand why some foods are high carb and some are considered low carb, and what separates them as good and evil. I mean good and bad.
The University of Sydney explains the ranking of carbohydrates is based on where they fall on the Glycemic Index (GI) scale. The scale is from 0 to 100 and measures glucose levels after eating and if there’s increase in blood sugars. For example potatoes and white bread are considered high on the glycemic index because when broken down in the digestive system into glucose, the blood glucose (blood sugar) levels increase. Where as carbs like strawberries don’t really fluctuate the blood sugar levels. The rate of digestion is important in the GI scale as well. Some high carbs are still considered low on the GI scale, like bananas, peas, carrots and some tubers and whole grains. There’s certainly a correlation between grams of fiber per carbohydrate that plays into the rate of digestion, but that’s for another day. Back to carbs.
The next obstacle to overcome is differentiating good vs bad carbs. What’s a complex carb and what constitutes a simple carb? To make it easy to remember, rather than going with complex vs. simple think of it like whole carbs vs. refined carbs.
Whole carbs are food presently found in nature and is dense with nutrients and loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals. Whereas refined carbs are usually found in a bag, packaged, repackaged from a manufacturing company and has added fats and artificial sugar and usually has been stripped of nutrients. So whole apples are a whole carb, and apple fritters are a refined carb.
So time to highlight some high quality carbohydrates:
This can get a little dicey. If there is a hierarchy in potato-land, sweet potatoes would rule all. This is pretty widespread acceptance by scholars and experts. Sweet potatoes are a high carbohydrate that has infiltrated paleo diets. Men’s Health Magazine and Nutrition Authority both have sweet potatoes as one of the best high carb food.
A medium sweet potato is roughly 100 calories, packs a punch with vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, fiber, 9g natural sugar, 27g carbs, and also is chock full of antioxidants (beta carotene). Great recovery food, very filling, and helps restore energy levels after a work out and helps repair cells.
All the other potatoes can get a little squished under all the attention sweet potatoes garner. Harvard School of Public Health no longer lists potatoes as a vegetable on their Healthy Eating Plate website. Mainly because potatoes are high in carbohydrates and spike blood sugar levels and have been linked to obesity. Russet potatoes break the glycemic index with being measured at 111. Despite the bad rap potatoes sometimes get, it’s how the potato is cooked which really matters most. Potatoes whether it’s sweet, white, red, or yellow are all free of fat. So a bake potato is a good healthy option for consumption. However, potato chips and french fries not good because of the added trans and saturated fats.
Though yams look like sweet potatoes, they are not sweet potatoes. If you are concerned about spiking your blood sugar levels with a sweet potato or another potato, yams are a great and tasty alternative. Yams take a little longer to digest because of the increased fiber and they already naturally have less sugar, therefore they fall into the medium range of the glycemic index. Yams have little effect on blood sugar levels and also have more potassium than potatoes but have less beta carotene.
One food that’s making a lot of noise recently are beans. To bean or not to bean? Beans and legumes have been restricted in some diets because they cannot be consumed raw. They must be cooked. To be more specific the kidney bean must be prepared properly. If the kidney bean is not cooked properly it’s toxic. The National Center for Biotechnology Information within the US National Library of Medicine heeds warning about consumption of unprepared kidney beans. But if cooked and prepared properly, this starchy food has ample amounts of fiber, carbs, and protein.
100 grams of kidney beans has upwards to 130 calories, 23g of carbs, 7g of fiber and almost 9g of protein. Because of the density of fiber in this bean, it takes a slower time to digest, which means your blood sugar levels are safe, and your energy storage will be potent.
Other beans worth highlighting here are chickpeas, lentils, black beans, pinto beans, navy beans and black eyed peas.
Some legumes or nuts that should be noted are peanuts and cashews.
This is a well known super grain that is high in carbs and considered a “complete protein.” It’s also gluten-free. Complete proteins are foods that have all eight essential amino acids. Our bodies produce some amino acids, but the essential ones are the kind we have to consume through diets.
In 1 cup of quinoa there is 8g of protein. Also quinoa is dense in nutrients, vitamins and minerals. It has liver healing properties with niacin, and offers significant amounts of vitamin E and vitamin B plus packs a dense amounts of calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.
Quinoa is easily one of the healthiest and most nutrient dense foods readily available. Other healthy grains are barely, millet, brown rice, corn, and bulgar. Though not a grain, oats are considered a great form of high carbohydrates, especially steel cut oats.
Known as an excellent source of potassium. Bananas are often seen at the end of endurance races, like marathons or ironman, because they’re a fast-digesting carbohydrate. In one large banana there’s about 31g of carbohydrates. But bananas are unique because the more ripe they get, the higher they climb in the glycemic index. So if your banana is a little on the greener side, it’s a bit more starchy and less sweet. But the sugars in bananas are simple sugars like fructose which can be easily digested and used as energy. Hence why they’re great post race and work out snack.
Bananas are considered to be one of the most popular fruits in the world. It’s no surprise because bananas have a lot of positive benefits in lowering blood pressure, assisting in digestion and of course has tons of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. And the potassium is critical for nerve and muscle functions.
Other notable fruits that are high in carbs are apples, grapefruits, oranges, and pears.
Emily has spent the last 8 years comparing, reviewing and analyzing ingredients in the supplements industry. She has worked extensively with dieticians, nutritionists and personal trainers to separate fact from fiction and help people achieve their fitness goals. In her free time she works and enjoys the outdoors with her husband and 2 children.