Choosing Healthy Carbs and Fats

Carbs, protein and, yes, fats are essential to a healthy diet. A dietitian explains the difference between healthy and unhealthy sources of these vital nutrients.

Many popular diet plans have demonized carbohydrates and fats, and exalted protein as the most important component of an active person’s daily food intake. But not all sources of carbs, fats and protein are equal, and understanding the differences has a dramatic impact on how well fueled you are for working out and living well.

Not all sources of carbs, fats and protein are equal, and understanding the differences has a dramatic impact on how well fueled you are.

The three main kinds of carbohydrates include sugar, starches and dietary fiber. The sugars found naturally in fruit and vegetables, and milk are healthy, complex carbohydrates. Added sugars are simple carbohydrates that your body quickly converts to glucose, which increases your blood sugar.

Starches are in foods such as grains, potatoes, beans and corn. Dietary fiber is a kind of carbohydrate that your body cannot digest. It passes through your body without being broken down, and is essential to help get rid of excess fat in the intestine and to regulate digestion.

Healthy carbohydrates include whole grains, all fruits and vegetables, legumes, potatoes (white and sweet), fruit, milk and milk products (limit ice cream and added sugar products). These contain fiber, vitamins, minerals and essential nutrients that keeps your body feeling its best.

Added sugars such as brown sugar, honey, glucose and high fructose corn syrup are carbs to avoid – high in calories, lacking in nutrients. Likewise, white bread, pasta, crackers, tortillas and rice are simple carbohydrates with limited amounts of nutrients.

Your body need fat to help it absorb the nutrients in your food and fat helps you to feel full, so you don’t consume more calories than you need. Eating healthy fats also helps to manage your mood, keep you alert, avoid fatigue and control your weight. Your total fat intake should be within 20 to 35 percent of your total calories per day.

The type of fat that you eat is important as some are healthier than others. Nutritious fats are needed in your diet and help to protect your heart, reduce cholesterol levels and support overall health. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the healthy options. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, avocados, olives, nuts and nut butters. Polyunsaturated fat are found in soybean and canola oils, seeds, fatty fish and tofu.

“Bad” fats – specifically  saturated fat and trans fats - can raise your cholesterol and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Saturated fat does not have to be eliminated from your diet but should make up less than 7 percent of your total calories per day. Red meat and whole-fat dairy products are the primary sources of saturated fats in our diet. Trans fat contributes to heart disease and cancer and should be avoided altogether. It’s often listed as “hydrogenated oils” and is frequently used in baked goods, packaged snack foods, fried food and butter alternatives such as margarine.

An important component of your part muscles, bones and skin, protein is a building block of your body, and it helps to break down food for energy. Protein is made of amino acids and you need to get them through your diet since your body cannot make them all.

Healthy sources of protein include fish and shellfish, which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Lean poultry, eggs, nuts, beans, soy products and low-fat dairy products are all good sources of protein. For a source of protein to be healthy, it should not be too high in fat, especially saturated fat, and should not be overly processed.

Limit your consumption of protein sources that are high in fat, such as red meat and full-fat dairy. Processed meats such as bacon, sausage and hot dogs are high in saturated fats and contain unhealthy nitrates and nitrites. They are not the healthiest choice.

Do you watch what you eat? Share your hints for healthy eating in Comments so we can all learn from each other.

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