When I moved to Southeast Asia in 2012, I had a nutritional ah-ha moment. How could it be that I was seeing people eating a diet of 60-80% percent rice (and white rice!) that were within a healthy weight range? Living in Asia transformed how I thought about carbohydrates and how I eat. I read this book and then took this plant-based nutrition course.
Sadly, Cambodia is in the throes of a fast paced nutritional transition whereby the traditional Cambodian diet is being replaced by processed foods, more meat and dairy products.
When I travel to the US every year, I am struck by (and often hungry because of) how little carbs people eat. People are stuck in an idea that carbs will make them fat. Americans only get about 40% of their calories from carbs. When people do eat carbs they are usually not the good ones! It’s important to eat whole food sources of carbs and avoid refined carbs as much as possible.
Carbohydrates: Why We Need Them
The reasons you need carbs are:
- To have enough energy for an active lifestyle
- To get enough amino acids, fats, fibers and minerals
- To benefit from the vitamins in starches such as potatoes
Carbohydrates are generally not found in animal products. The exception is milk, which contains a simple sugar called lactose. Of course, many people don’t digest lactose well and suffer from discomfort as a result of consuming milk.
Best Carbs to Eat for Health
Fruit is a source of sweet carbs, such as glucose and fructose. Green and yellow vegetables contain complex carbohydrates, but since the total amount of calories in these veggies is negligible, we don’t get much from them. Starches are the greatest source of complex carbohydrates: whole grain flour (wheat and rye), tubers (potato and sweet potato), intact whole grains (brown rice), legumes (beans and peas) and squashes.
The best carbohydrates to eat are plant foods:
- Starchy vegetables
- Intact whole grains
- Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils
Healthiest Ways to Eat Carbs
- Minimally Processed – Enjoy foods as close as possible to “as grown in nature” with minimal processing which does not detract from the nutritional value and/or add any harmful components. Enjoy the real thing: a baked or boiled potato and a bowl of rice.
- Low S-O-S – Avoid/minimize the use of added salts/sodium, oils/fats, and sugars/sweeteners. It’s tempting to add lots of salt and sugar to our food, but even a small amount of salt and/or sugar makes food more enjoyable. For more advice on eating less oil, see my blog post, 5 Simple Ways to Cook with Less Oil.
Healthy carbohydrates should make up most—if not all—of our daily calories. Without enough good carbs, you’ll end up hungry, deprived and cranky. Give your body the energy and nutrients it needs so you can lead an active and meaningful life.
Your turn: Tell us in the comments how you feel about carbs at this stage of your life.