Long before paleo and juicing, there was Atkins. Introduced in 1998, the diet sought to help individuals lose weight by slashing carbohydrate consumption while loading up on foods high in protein and fat. People went nuts. It was the rare diet that encouraged eating massive amounts of animal protein, and people actually shedding pounds.
Though attitudes toward the food group have relaxed in recent years, carbohydrates are still among the first foods to go when people are looking to lose weight. Eliminating carbs completely isn’t a good idea, though. They’re the body’s main source of energy, and their role is even more critical for athletes. Men’s Health explains these foods help give you the necessary endurance for a grueling effort. They’re also one of the best sources of fiber, which you need to keep your digestive system working properly.
We’ve put together a list of carbohydrates to include in your diet, and you might be surprised to find out some of the foods you thought were unhealthy are actually pretty good for you. You might even discover a few new ones. One way or the other, it’s time to bring carbs back to the table.
Anyone who enjoys Middle Eastern food has likely loaded their plate with bulgur, the key ingredient in tabbouleh. According to Rodale’s Organic Life, it isn’t technically a whole grain, thanks to the processing that removes part of the bran. Still, it’s a nutritional powerhouse. One cup of cooked bulgur provides 8 grams of fiber and 6 grams of protein. It’s also high in iron, zinc, and niacin. Try making your own tabbouleh, using bulgur to make a delicious risotto, or baking it into a casserole.
2. Taro root
Though it’s common in Asian cultures and the star ingredient in poi, taro root has yet to catch on in America. You’d be wise to start stocking up. According to NutritionData.com, one cup of cooked taro root contains 187 calories and 7 grams of fiber. It’ll even give you a decent dose of vitamin C. The most important thing to note about this vegetable is the need to thoroughly cook it. According to Organic Authority, if eaten raw, the root can lead to kidney stones and gout. As long as you’re not whipping up a taro crudo, you’ll be fine. Try roasting it as you would potatoes, or steam it with pork and a rich black bean sauce.
3. Winter squash
Winter squash comes in a ton of different varieties, yet most people think of it as a throwaway fruit that’s only good for a few holiday dishes. They may not be as flashy as spinach, but these gourds can do the body good. Men’s Fitness likes squash for its fiber, vitamin C, and carotenoids, which may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. They’re also widely available from fall until spring, so load up. The hard part about cooking squash is narrowing down your options, because they’re remarkably versatile. Acorn squash is perfect for baking. You could also whip up a soup using squash as a main ingredient.
Its status as a movie theater treat usually keeps us from eating popcorn very often, but it’s actually a pretty smart snack. With 30 calories and 1 gram of fiber per popped cup, this food is a much better way to satisfy your need for something crunchy than resorting to potato chips or crackers. And according to Eating Well, 3 cups of the popped kernels fulfills one of your daily recommended servings of whole grains. While popcorn is perfectly healthy on its own, the toppings can lead to trouble. Go light on the butter or oil and use other seasonings to boost the flavor.
It’s hard to browse recipes or menus online without running into sweet potatoes. They’ve been touted as a health food for a number of years, leaving white spuds in the dust. Regular old potatoes deserve a little more love. Despite their unhealthy reputation, potatoes themselves are actually quite nutritious. It’s all the butter, sour cream, and other calorie-laden toppings that lead to problems.
According to Men’s Fitness, one baked spud with the skin contains 15% of your daily fiber needs and 25% of your recommended doses for vitamins C and B6. Potatoes also contain more potassium than bananas. Though making a baked potato seems pretty basic, it’s a method many people get wrong. Follow this guide from BBC Good Food for great results every time.
6. Sourdough bread
Most people go for whole-wheat bread these days, leaving a huge part of the bakery section untouched. Those 12-grain varieties might seem like the clear winners of the healthiest loaf competition, sourdough similarly eliminates the blood sugar spike you get with most white breads. The Guardian explains this is due to the bread’s acidity, which slows the release of sugars into your bloodstream. It also provides good doses of selenium, folate, thiamine, and manganese. The downside is sourdough doesn’t have the fiber power you’ll find in whole-wheat varieties — so keep them in your diet.
Americans have a serious sugar addiction. In an effort to cut back, many people stay away from fruit, but the problem with avoiding the sweet produce is it cuts down on a lot of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals you would otherwise consume. Just about any fruit will do, but The Huffington Post particularly likes bananas for fiber and vitamin B6, as well as blueberries for antioxidants. Instead of digging into a bowl of ice cream to end your meal, try eating some fruit. You’ll satisfy your sweet tooth without adding a bunch of unnecessary calories or fillers.
Kamut is wheat’s sweet and nutty relative, loaded with fiber and protein — and nearly 50 grams of carbohydrates per serving. One cooked cup of kamut provides about 7 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein. Livestrong.com praises it for its magnesium, zinc, and selenium content as well. Many people with wheat allergies are able to tolerate this grain, too, and can use it as a substitute for wheat-based products so as not to miss out on essential B vitamins. Use kamut to bake with wheat-free flour, or add whole kernels to your salad to vary the texture and taste.
Nuts are the perfect salty snack — a much smarter choice than potato chips, which will only leave you hungrier than before you started eating. Almonds, pistachios, and cashews all contain over 6 grams of carbohydrates per ounce. When you grab a handful of mixed nuts, you’ll also take in plenty of protein — up to 6 grams per serving, in the case of almonds. The health benefits don’t end there, though. According to Mayo Clinic, nuts are also an excellent source of healthy fats and omega-3s, making them good for your heart. Use them to create your own nut butters, or simply snack on them when you’re hungry between lunch and dinner.
Chickpeas, sometimes called garbanzo beans, are a plant-based protein also loaded with healthy carbs in the form of dietary fiber. You’ll get over 12 grams of fiber, 14 grams of protein, and only about 4 grams of fat per cup. According to Organic Facts, chickpeas are also high in antioxidants. Their high fiber content makes them a great food to eat if you want to lose weight, resolve minor digestive problems, or better control your blood sugar. You can certainly make hummus, but you can also roast chickpeas whole in the oven. Just sprinkle on some cumin, red pepper, and garlic powder to add flavor to a healthy yet crunchy, filling snack.
11. Kidney beans
Beans are the protein-packed, starch-saturated plants you’re not eating nearly enough of. According to Authority Nutrition, kidney beans in particular are high in starch, which is considered a slow-release carbohydrate. This basically means starchy foods like this take longer for your body to digest, which keeps you full. A single cup serving of kidney beans has about 40 total grams of carbohydrates, 11 of which come from fiber. They’re also high in protein and extremely low in fat. Use kidney beans in your favorite homemade chili recipe to keep yourself full and satisfied for hours.
12. Green leafy vegetables
Green leafy vegetables are staples in many healthy recipes, and there’s a lot of nutrition in these leaves. Kale, for example, provides 6 grams of carbs and about 3 grams of protein per serving. Broccoli yields about the same amounts of both. Green leafy veggies also have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and disease risk-reducing properties. Vegetarian Nutrition Info says they are also great for bone health due to high levels of vitamin K. You don’t have to eat a salad for every meal to take advantage of all these benefits, though. You can add spinach to pasta, use broccoli in soup, or grill your kale and eat it alongside your favorite fish.
Oats are another fiber-rich grain you should consider adding to your weekly menu. Depending on how they are processed, they can turn out to be one of the healthiest things you can eat for breakfast. According to The Whole Grain Council, oats can also help you control your blood pressure and lower your LDL (bad) cholesterol. With around 50 grams of carbs and 13 grams of protein per serving, it’s not a question of when you should eat them, but how. If you’re not a fan of oatmeal or want to eat more oats throughout your day, add them to your homemade granola recipe or pair them with fruit as a healthy mid-afternoon snack.
If you’re on the hunt for a whole grain other than wheat, you might consider giving teff a try. Teff is a small grain that’s full of iron, protein, and other nutrients great for anyone looking to boost their energy, especially athletes. One study (which is admittedly limited) suggests teff is an excellent source of iron for deficient female athletes, but its protein and carb profile make it a great candidate for anyone who works out regularly: You’ll get 50 grams of carbs and 7 grams of fiber per serving.
Those living gluten-free can also use teff as a safe grain alternative in cooking and baking. You can use teff to make just about anything you might make with wheat flour, adding a long list of added health benefits in the process.
Don’t be afraid to branch out and try a vegetable you might not be used to eating regularly, like radishes. According to Livestrong.com, radishes are low in calories, full of fiber, and excellent sources of vitamin C. You don’t have to eat vegetables raw to get all their health benefits, either — as long as you’re not boiling them, not much nutrition is lost in cooking. You can sauté radishes in garlic, salt, and chives to create a crunchy, healthy treat that tastes amazing.