Carbohydrates are undoubtedly demonized by adherents to low-carb diets such as the Atkins Diet, Keto, and Paleo, but many nutritionists, dietitians, and medical professionals believe that carbohydrates can—and should—be part of a healthy diet. Carbohydrates provide energy to the cells in your body, and fiber increases satiety and aids digestion and bowel regularity. They also provide less than half the number of calories per gram compared to fat, making them a viable macronutrient for weight loss diets.
The key to capitalizing on the health benefits of carbohydrates is to choose high-quality sources of complex carbohydrates. Foods like whole grains, unprocessed fruits, starchy vegetables, and legumes provide carbohydrates with fiber and no added sugars. These carbohydrates are lower on the glycemic index, which means they fuel the body with sustained energy and keep blood sugars more stable without creating spikes and rebound dips. Below, we share some of the healthiest foods high in complex carbohydrates. Adding these nutritious, high-carb foods into your diet—particularly surrounding workouts—will provide lasting energy to your body and keep hunger at bay.
Legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils, are one of the most nutritious high-carbohydrate foods. They are rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants, such as anthocyanins and isoflavones. Diets high in legumes have been associated with lower risks of cancer, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease. Beans, lentils, and soy are also packed with soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber helps you feel full, bulks up stool, and promotes bowel regularity. Insoluble fiber is considered a prebiotic fuel source, which means it nourishes the beneficial bacteria residing in your digestive tract. Your gut microbiome performs a variety of critical functions, including digesting and harnessing the nutrients in food, producing vitamins B12 and K, reducing inflammation, and defending against pathogens.
Legumes are a good source of protein for vegans and vegetarians. They are also high in carbohydrates. For example, one cup of cooked lentils contains about 40 grams of carbohydrates, of which 16 are dietary fiber. Black beans, garbanzo beans, and kidney beans provide a similar carbohydrate profile. Peas have fewer carbs, but a greater percentage of the carbohydrate content is natural sugar rather than fiber.
Quinoa is often grouped together with grains, but it’s actually a seed. It’s a nutrient-dense superfood, offering a complete source of protein with all nine essential amino acids. It’s also 70% carbohydrates by weight, offering sustained energy. Quinoa also contains B vitamins and iron, which are vital for transporting oxygen around the body. Moreover, quinoa is naturally gluten-free.
Whole grains like brown rice, buckwheat, whole wheat, millet, barley, and whole oats are excellent sources of carbohydrates. Unlike the refined grains used to make white flours, white pasta, pastries, bagels, and many kinds of cereal, whole grains leave the bran and hull of the grain intact. This not only preserves tons of nutrients like iron, B vitamins, and other minerals, but it also keeps the fiber content high. This makes whole grains more filling. Where possible, swap any refined grains with unprocessed whole grains for increased satiety and a significant boost in nutrients.
Potatoes are usually turned down by proponents of low-carb diets, but these arguably maligned spuds are actually quite nutritious. Potatoes are tubers, which are attached to the roots of a plant and serve as storage houses for nutrients. As such, they are packed with essential nutrients including vitamin C, the B vitamins, potassium, and minerals such as magnesium and phosphorus. They also store energy for the plant in the form of complex carbohydrates. One medium potato contains about 37 grams of carbohydrates, including 4 grams of fiber.
Fruits are almost entirely composed of carbohydrates and water, with little protein or fat content. While some fruits are high in sugar, all the sugar is natural and often accompanied by some fiber, water, vitamins, and minerals. The carbohydrate content varies depending on the type of fruit, with many of the tropical fruits topping the list of highest carbohydrate fruits. Bananas, mangos, pineapple, and dates are among the fruits with the highest carbohydrate content.
Dried fruit contains even more carbohydrates per gram than fresh fruit because all the water has been removed. This makes dried fruit more calorically dense, so it can be an energizing pre-workout snack that can give you the energy you need without leaving you bloated or feeling overly full. Dried fruit is also rich in nutrients. For example, dried apricots have 7.5 mg of iron per cup, or nearly the daily value for most men and about 42% for women.
Oats and Whole Grain Cereals
Oats are a whole grain, so rolled oats or steel-cut oats made into oatmeal, porridge, or muesli make for a healthy, high-carbohydrate breakfast. Packaged granolas can be healthy as well, though many are made with lots of added sugars, so be sure to look at the ingredients list and nutrition facts before choosing granola. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, fortified cereals can be an important source of vitamin B12, so don’t shy away from enjoying your favorite bowl of low-sugar, whole-grain cereal.
Sweet Potatoes and Yams
Sweet potatoes and yams are tubers that are one of the best sources of vitamin A and beta-carotene, both of which support eye health and skin health among other antioxidant properties. Like potatoes, sweet potatoes are also high in complex carbohydrates, with about 37 grams per medium sweet potato (5 grams of which are fiber). Sweet potatoes have been shown to help regulate blood sugar levels and reduce the risk of diabetes.
Technically a fruit, winter squash varieties are high in complex carbohydrates. From butternut squash to acorn squash, delicata squash to kabocha squash, winter squashes are sweet, creamy, and filling, making for a hearty side dish or soup ingredient for chilly winter weather. The orange flesh is rich in beta-carotene and the nutrient-packed seeds can be roasted and enjoyed, providing everything from healthy omega-3 fatty acids to zinc.
Root vegetables like beets, carrots, and parsnips are the edible roots of the plant. As roots, these healthy vegetables store nutrients for the plant, such as vitamins, minerals, and sugars in the form of complex carbohydrates, which is what lends the characteristic sweet flavor. They also contain fiber, antioxidants, and polyphenols.
Corn is a delicious, summertime sweet vegetable. It’s juicy, tender, and versatile, enjoyed straight off the cob, grilled, steamed, sautéed, and anywhere in between. One cup of corn provides 41 grams of carbs, including 5 grams of fiber. It’s also rich in vitamin C, which supports your immune system and prevents oxidative damage. Corn also provides B vitamins, potassium, magnesium, and antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which support eye health.
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