Imagine this: you can lose weight, get healthier and stronger, and feel better—all while still eating carbs. Yes, it’s true. You absolutely can slim down by eating carbs, but that’s only if you eat the right healthy carbs.
What makes carbs the healthiest carbs?
There are three main groups of carbs:
- Simple carbohydrates are basically sugars. You’ll find these naturally in fruits and vegetables but also in refined grains and processed foods through “added sugar.” Because they are simple and refined, simple carbs burn up fast, spiking your blood sugar and causing it to crash. This can leave you with a craving for more carbs and can also lead to weight gain long term.
- Complex carbohydrates are made up of long chains of sugar molecules. These carbohydrates keep you full for longer because they take more time for your body to digest and break down for energy.
- Dietary fiber is a long chain of sugar molecules, just like complex carbs, but it’s indigestible—meaning, your body can’t break it down to use for energy. Instead, dietary fiber helps provide bulk to keep your digestion system running as well as help you to feel full. You’ll often find fiber in the same foods that contain complex carbs.
Healthy carbs—complex carbs and dietary fiber—will take longer for your body to break down compared to simple carbs. This means you’ll spend more energy to burn these than simple sugars, which results in weight loss rather than weight gain.
The best healthy carbs for weight loss.
We put together this list of complex carbohydrates that are high in dietary fiber and low in simple sugars. Add these essential Eat This, Not That! healthiest carbs into your daily diet and stay fueled and fat-burning all day long—without sacrifice.
It’s not only good for your health, but also a killer appetite suppressant that can help keep your six-pack diet on track all day. “Barley contains a whopping 6 grams of belly-filling, mostly soluble fiber that has been linked to lowered cholesterol, decreased blood sugars and increased satiety,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN. It also has tons of health benefits like decreased inflammation and stabilized blood sugar levels. And: you’ll immediately feel lighter. Barley acts as a bulking agent, which can help push waste through the digestive tract.
2. Whole-Wheat Pasta
You know brown is better, but do you know why? It’s because whole wheat contains three parts of the grain, all nutrient rich and fiber-filling. Besides for whole-grain pasta, try varieties with lentils, chickpeas, black beans or quinoa.
3. Acorn Squash
Besides serving up a third of the day’s fiber, a one-cup serving of this highly nutritious, naturally sweet veggie contains 30 percent of your daily vitamin C needs. The body uses the nutrient to form muscle and blood vessels, and it can even boost the fat-burning effects of exercise, according to Arizona State University researchers.
Lentils, chickpeas, peas and beans — they’re all magic bullets for belly-fat loss. In one four-week Free Radical Research study, researchers found that eating a calorie-restricted diet that includes four weekly servings of legumes aids weight loss more effectively than an equivalent diet that doesn’t include them. Those who consumed the legume-rich diet also saw improvements in their “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and systolic blood pressure. To reap the benefits at home, work them into your diet throughout the week. Salad is an easy way.
5. Whole-Wheat Bread
If you’re going for abs, you’re already sending the restaurant bread basket back. But don’t shirk from whole-wheat bread completely. As with whole-wheat pasta, you’re getting all three parts of the grain, with fiber to increase satiety and prevent overeating. Just be careful—most breads in the sandwich aisle are filled with high fructose corn syrup or a blend of whole and enriched wheats. It’s worth splurging on the pricier stuff, often found in the freezer section.
6. Black Beans
The simple bean is actually an advanced fat-burning, muscle-building machine. “Beans are a great source of protein that includes fiber,” says Leah Kaufman, a New York City based registered dietitian. “That’s going to ensure your blood sugar doesn’t spike and will give you energy to build the muscle you want.” One cup of black beans has 12 grams of protein and 9 grams of fiber; they’re also rich in folate, a B vitamin that stokes muscle growth, and copper, which strengthens tendons. On top of that, the Free Radical Research study showed that consuming four weekly servings of beans or legumes accelerates weight loss.
Yes, oats are loaded with complex carbs, but the release of those sugars is slowed by fiber, and because oats also have 10 grams of protein per half-cup serving, they deliver steady, ab-muscle-friendly energy. And that fiber is soluble, which lowers the risk of heart disease. The éminence grise of health food, oats garnered the FDA’s first seal of approval.
Quinoa is higher in protein than any other grain, and it packs a hefty dose of heart-healthy, unsaturated fats. “Quinoa is also a great source of fiber and B vitamins,” says Christopher Mohr, Ph.D., R.D. a professor of nutrition at the University of Louisville. Try quinoa in the morning. It has twice the protein of most cereals, and fewer carbs.
Now quinoa, make some space at the table—there’s a new ancient grain on the block. Kamut is a grain native to the Middle East. Rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, it’s also high in protein while low in calories. A half-cup serving has 30% more protein than regular wheat (six grams), with only 140 calories. Eating kamut reduces cholesterol, blood sugar and cytokines, which cause inflammation throughout the body, a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found. Toss it into salads or eat it as a side dish on its own.
10. Chocolate Milk
Want to know the secret to staying slim? You need more muscle. That’s because muscle burns more calories than fat, so for every new muscle fiber you create, your resting metabolism receives another surge of fat-torching energy. And chocolate milk can help you do that with an optimal mix of good carbs and protein. Researchers have determined that the ideal protein load for building muscle is 10 to 20 grams, half before and half after your workout. How much protein will you find in low-fat chocolate milk? Eight grams per cup. (That means one serving before your workout and one serving after will give you a total of 16 grams of highly effective whey protein—a perfect serving.) Add that to the extra cup you drank first thing in the morning and you’re looking at a turbocharged metabolism that keeps you burning calories all day long.
A bloated belly can make even the most toned stomach look a bit paunchy. Fight back against the gas and water retention with bananas. One Anaerobejournal study found that women who ate a banana twice daily as a pre-meal snack for 60 days reduced their belly-bloat by 50 percent! Not only does the fruit increase bloat-fighting bacteria in the stomach, it’s also a good source of potassium, which can help diminish water retention. Bananas are rich in glucose, a highly digestible sugar, which provides quick energy, and their high potassium content helps prevent muscle cramping during your workout. Each medium banana contains about 36 grams of good carbs: Their low glycemic index means carbs are slowly released into your body, preventing sugar crashes and spurring the process of muscle recovery.
Cherries are a delicious, phytonutrient-rich snack. But the true cherry bomb is the tart cherry—not the sort you’re used to seeing each summer in bunches at the supermarket. In most of the country you’ll find them dried, frozen, or canned. But they’re worth seeking out because they are a true superpower fruit. A study at the University of Michigan found that rats fed tart cherries showed a 9 percent belly fat reduction over rats fed a standard diet. Moreover, researchers noted that the cherries alter the expression of fat genes!
Apples are one of the very best sources of fiber, which means you should eat them at every opportunity. A recent study at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that for every 10-gram increase in soluble fiber eaten per day, belly fat was reduced by 3.7 percent over five years. And a study at the University of Western Australia found that the Pink Lady variety had the highest level of antioxidant flavonoids — a fat-burning compound — of any apple.
14. Sweet Potatoes
The king of slow carbs (meaning they’re digested slowly and keep you feeling fuller and energized longer), sweet potatoes are loaded with fiber, nutrients and can help you burn fat. The magic ingredient here are carotenoids, antioxidants which stabilize blood-sugar levels and lower insulin resistance, which prevents calories from being converted into fat. And their high vitamin profile (including A, C and B6) give you more energy to burn at the gym.
In addition to warding off prostate, breast, lung and skin cancers, this flowery vegetable can also help you whittle your middle. According to experts, broccoli contains a phytonutrient called sulforaphane that increase testosterone and fights off body fat storage. It’s also rich in vitamin C ( a mere cup of the stuff can help you hit your daily mark), a nutrient that can lower levels of cortisol during stressful situations, helping your abs take center stage. Its cousins in the cruciferous-vegetable family are also excellent carbs for your abs: Chinese cabbage, kale, cauliflower, arugula and more.
A cup of blueberries has 21 grams of carbs, but they couldn’t be healthier for you. Not only are these healthy carbs loaded with polyphenols—chemical compounds that prevent fat from forming—they actively burn belly fat, spot-reducing it! A University of Michigan study found that rats that ate blueberry powder as part of their meals lost belly fat and had lower cholesterol, even when they ate a high-fat diet. It’s theorized that the catechins in blueberries activate the fat-burning gene in belly-fat cells. Additionally, blueberries may be muscle builders. Their skins are rich in ursolic acid, a chemical which researchers at the University of Iowa found prevents muscle breakdown in lab animals.
Like quinoa, buckwheat is gluten-free and a complete source of protein, meaning it supplies all nine essential muscle-building amino acids the body cannot produce on its own, says registered dietitian Isabel Smith. But what makes this relative of the rhubarb such a nutritional rock star is its magnesium and fiber content. “Fiber slows digestion, which wards off blood sugar spikes and hunger and helps maintain blood sugar control—all important keys to weight loss and management,” explains Smith. Studies have also shown that buckwheat may improve circulation and lower cholesterol.
18. Sprouted Bread
This nutrient-dense bread is loaded with folate-filled lentils and good-for-you sprouted grains and seeds like barley and millet. Like quinoa, sprouted bread has been shown to increase the bioavailability of vitamins and minerals. It has this effect on important nutrients like vitamin C, a nutrient that counteracts stress hormones that trigger abdominal fat storage, essential amino acids that aid muscle growth and belly-filling fiber. Translation: Abs for you.
19. Cold Potato Salad
If you typically eat your potatoes warm out of the oven, you’re missing out on the spud’s belly-fat-fighting superpowers. When you throw potatoes in the refrigerator and eat them cold, their digestible starches turn into resistant starches through a process called retrogradation. As the name implies, resistant starch, well, resists digestion, which promotes fat oxidation and reduces abdominal fat. Since eating cold baked potatoes doesn’t sound too appetizing, use the cooled spuds to make a potato salad instead.
This mild, nutty whole grain is a complete protein that’s rich in vitamins and fiber, just like quinoa, says Alexandra Miller, RDN, LDN, a Pennsylvania-based corporate dietitian. What makes it nutritionally superior is its calcium and ab-building iron content. “Teff provides nearly four times as much calcium and two times as much iron as quinoa,” says Miller. Don’t underestimate these nutrients; their impact on your body is bigger than you would expect. “Diets rich in calcium have been associated with lower body weight and reduced weight gain over time. Calcium also helps keep our bones and teeth strong and may reduce the risk of colon cancer,” she explains. Teff can be cooked and added to vegetables, salads, soups, and casseroles, or you can enjoy a bowl of it for breakfast.
Quinoa and amaranth are the ab-carving Wonder Twins of grains. Both are gluten-free sources of complete proteins and have nearly the same amount of fiber and protein. But amaranth has superpowers of its own: It has more anti-inflammatory monounsaturated fats than quinoa, four times the calcium (an electrolyte that promotes satiety) and 20 percent more magnesium, a nutrient that may aid weight loss thanks to its ability to control blood sugar and ward off hunger,” says registered dietitian Isabel Smith. Amaranth makes a perfect substitute for your morning oatmeal. Alternatively, it can be used like quinoa in salads and side dishes.
It looks unassuming, but Popeye’s favorite veggie can help take your calorie-burning potential to the next level. The green is overflowing with protein (just one cup of the steamed variety has as much protein as a medium hard-boiled egg), a nutrient that aids post-pump muscle recovery and growth. And remember: The more muscle mass you have, the more calories you burn at rest! What’s more, the leafy green is also rich in thylakoids, a compound that’s been shown to significantly reduce cravings and promote weight loss.
23. Wheat Bran
Packed with bloat-banishing fiber, low in calories, high in muscle-building protein, wheat bran is definitely a nutritional champion. Made from the dense, outer hull of wheat grains, it adds a sweet, nutty flavor to homemade muffins, waffles, pancakes and breads. It also makes a good addition to hot and cold cereals. If you’re really trying to boost your dietary fiber, consume it solo, porridge-style, with a sprinkling of cinnamon and a drizzle of honey.
This wheat-rye hybrid is one of the most underrated healthy carbs. An able stand-in for rice or quinoa, triticale packs twice as much protein as an egg in one 1/2 cup serving! It’s also rich in brain-boosting iron, muscle-mending potassium and magnesium, and heart-healthy fiber. Use triticale in place of rice and mix it with soy sauce, fresh ginger, cloves, shiitake mushrooms and edamame to make a healthy, Asian-inspired dish. You can also use triticale flour in place of traditional flour in your baking.