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Ranking Complex Carbs by How Healthy They Are

Also, uh, what even are complex carbs, anyway?

On the whole, our relationship with carbs is similar to the biblical encounter that Eve had with the forbidden fruit: She knew it was bad news, but her body said yes, and she eagerly yeeted it into her mouth. But we often paint carbs with a broad, demonizing brush, ignoring that some are actually incredibly healthy. 

“While many weight-loss diets have people believing that ‘carb’ is a four-letter word, that’s far from the truth,” says nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction. “Most people equate carbs with bread and pasta, but you can also find them in foods like grains, legumes, seeds, vegetables and fruits. These foods contain fiber and starch, and are considered complex carbohydrates, while sugary products like donuts, cookies, bread and spaghetti are considered simple carbohydrates. Complex carbs offer healthful nutrients and fiber, whereas simple carbs don’t. Complex carbs are also more filling and help people lose weight, while simple carbs cause people to gain weight. In addition, complex carbs won’t spike your blood sugar, making them ideal for those with type 2 diabetes.”

In simpler terms, complex carbs can help you grow big and strong, bro. And if you want to be the biggest and the strongest — or at least feel good about your health — you should make an effort to include only the best complex carbs in your diet. For guidance in doing so, I asked Friedman to help me rank an assortment of complex carbs by how healthy they are — from pretty decent to The Divine Bringer of Good Health. 

Grab some breadsticks and follow along.

1) Beans: Beans are number one in my heart and in our ranking. “Beans are considered the most healthful food on the planet,” Friedman says. “Beans are commonly eaten among people living in the ‘Blue Zones,’ places around the globe where people live the healthiest and longest lives; many of them well beyond 100 years of age! Beans are chock-full of fiber, protein, complex carbs, antioxidants and vitamins.   Beans help with weight loss, increase our lifespan, and lower our risk of heart attack, diabetes and cancer.”

As Friedman explains, beans get their cardiovascular benefits from quercetin, “a natural anti-inflammatory that helps reduce the risk of plaquing of the arteries,” and saponins that “help lower blood lipid and blood cholesterol levels, which protects the valves of the heart.”

Additionally, “Beans offer a great source of calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, copper and zinc, all of which contribute to building and maintaining bone structure and strength,” Friedman says. “But the most impressive healthy benefit for eating beans is, they help to reduce the development of cancer thanks to powerful flavonoids. In fact, research published in 2015 analyzed antioxidant properties in various foods that can help fight intestinal cancer, and beans were shown to have the most potent antioxidant properties.” 

I’ve never bean so impressed!

2) Oatmeal: Second on our list is breakfast slop, which Friedman says is “rich in healthy complex carbs and an excellent source of gut-healthy fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.” Whole oats, he explains, “contain a unique group of antioxidants called avenanthramides, which are almost solely found in oats. These compounds have been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and may help to lower blood pressure.”

Oatmeal is also a great choice for any diabetics out there, because, “unlike many other breakfast options, oatmeal won’t cause a blood sugar spike,” says Friedman. “A systematic review published by the journal Nutricion Hospitalaria found that eating beta glucans, the soluble fiber found in oatmeal, helps to lower blood glucose levels in people with diabetes.” Beta glucans reduce bad cholesterol levels, too.

Friedman does, however, emphasize the importance of choosing the right oatmeal. “Don’t go with instant oatmeals, because they’re overly processed, pre-cooked, dried, then rolled and toasted,” he warns. “Instead, opt for steel-cut oats (aka, Irish oatmeal), because they’re closest to their original grain form and are the healthier option.”

3) Lentils: “Lentils are a great source of polyphenols, powerful anti-inflammatory micronutrients that may offer protection from the development of cancers, cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes,” Friedman explains. In other words, eating lentils will help you not die.

Lentils are also a major source of fiber and “offer a powerhouse of vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, zinc and potassium,” Friedman explains. “They’re also a great source of folic acid, which supports healthy hair growth and can lower the risk of heart attacks and stroke.” 

So maybe add a lentil dish to your next Indian takeout order.

4) Quinoa: The lifeblood of every Whole Foods fanatic, quinoa “is one of the few plant foods on the planet that contain sufficient amounts of all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein,” Friedman says. “Research comparing the antioxidant levels of 10 other legumes, grains and cereals found that quinoa had the highest antioxidant content of them all.”

In addition to being high in fiber and good for weight loss, Friedman notes, “in an article published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, it stated that quinoa has an exceptional balance of protein, oil and fat, as well as its minerals, fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamins, making it one of the world’s most highly nutritious foods.”

As an added bonus, “Quinoa contains phytohormones, which are being studied as a treatment for females suffering with menopause symptoms, because they often behave like estrogens in the body.” 


5) Whole-Grain Breads and Pastas (i.e., the Brown Kind): “Whole grains are healthy, and the only reason I’m not listing them as my number-one pick is because many people have developed an inability to properly digest the gluten found in grains,” Friedman explains. “They offer fiber, healthy plant-based protein, vitamins, minerals and a variety of healthy phytochemicals.”

“Whole grains, particularly wheat, contain phenolic acids, a type of antioxidant with documented cancer-inhibiting properties,” Friedman continues. “They also help lower triglycerides and prevent the body from absorbing ‘bad’ cholesterol that can contribute to heart disease. In addition, research shows whole grains can lower your risk of diabetes, protect you from stroke, obesity and prevent cancer.”

For the best results, Friedman says, “Look for products with a ‘whole grain’ stamp from the Whole Grains Council, which ensures there’s at least half a serving of whole grains inside.”

6) Butternut Squash: Yes, butternut squash is a carb and “offers an impressive assortment of health benefits, including cancer prevention and improved vision, as well as diabetes management and enhanced heart health,” says Friedman. “Squash gets its distinctive color from carotenoids, like beta-cryptoxanthin. This plant pigment contains powerful antioxidants, which research shows could reduce your risk of developing arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.”

It can help keep the pounds off, too. “Because it contains both insoluble and soluble fiber, butternut squash has been associated with fat loss and appetite reduction,” Friedman explains. “That is, of course, if you can resist the urge to add butter and marshmallows on top.” 


7) Potatoes: While white potatoes have a decent dose of nutrients and amino acids (which help repair your cells), Friedman warns, “The carbohydrate, or starchy part of this potato, ranks high on the glycemic index — that means it enters the bloodstream faster, which is a plus if you’re an endurance athlete,” but a negative otherwise.

“In general, you’re better off eating sweet potatoes,” Friedman says. “Even though they have the word ‘sweet’ in their name, these potatoes are diabetic-friendly and won’t spike your blood sugar. In fact, their high fiber content actually helps with blood glucose control and weight management. Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are also one of nature’s unsurpassed sources of beta-carotene, which is needed for healthy skin and mucous membranes, our immune system, good eye health and vision.”

8) Peas: “Peas are low in calories and contain several vitamins, minerals and antioxidants,” Friedman says. “They’re also high in fiber and protein. The high protein content of green peas makes them an excellent food choice for those who don’t eat animal products.”

“Peas may also reduce the risk of heart disease due to their high levels of polyphenolic antioxidants, which are flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory properties,” Friedman continues. “If you aren’t eating peas in your diet, in the words of John Lennon, ‘Give peas a chance!’”

9) Millet: This cereal grain is “chock-full of essential amino acids,” Friedman explains. “It offers many nutrients, including phosphorus, magnesium, folate and iron, and contains the highest calcium content of all cereals. So instead of drinking that glass of milk for strong bones, reach for the millet.” Get it, bro!

10) Brown Rice: “The general rule of thumb is, the whiter the rice, the less nutritionally dense it is,” Friedman explains. “The darker varieties of rice contain the whole grain, which includes the fibrous brain, the nutritious germ and the carb-rich endosperm.  White rice, on the other hand, is processed and stripped of its nutritious content — this can lead to a spike in blood sugar levels and an increased appetite.”

“Brown rice is better than white rice when it comes to magnesium levels, containing four times more of this nutrient,” Friedman continues. “The mineral magnesium is crucial for heart, bone, muscle and brain health.” And when you consider that 50 percent of Americans are magnesium deficient, brown rice is a good bet. Still, Friedman notes, “While brown rice is a better choice than white rice, you’re way better going with black or wild rice as the healthier complex carb.”

Now who’s down for Olive Garden?