Carbs have been getting a lot of bad press lately. Low-carb meals, the Paleo diet and gluten-free products seem to be the health food trends of the moment.
Many consumers are avoiding “white carbs” but may, in fact, be missing out on the essential nutrition that comes from grain foods. Grain foods, like oatmeal, whole-wheat bread and pasta, provide us with an excellent source of nutrient-rich, slow-release, low GI carbohydrates that our bodies need to stay healthy and energized.
Confused? Let me explain.
What are Carbs and Why Do We Need Them?
Carbohydrates, when broken down, provide the body with glucose – the primary source of energy for bodily functions, physical activity and the only source of energy for your brain. They are essential for keeping your body and mind running smoothly.
If you’ve ever tried to eliminate carbs from your diet, then you know how quickly you feel the impact. You feel lethargic, sluggish, foggy, irritable, moody and generally out-of-sorts. Your get-up-and-go is gone.
That’s the effect of those missing carbs and the glucose they provide. You’re essentially running on fumes. No wonder you feel awful.
Which Foods Contain Carbs?
The good news is, carbohydrates can found in a wide variety of foods – not just “white flour” foods.
Carbs can be found in beans, milk, soda, spaghetti, peas, carrots, sweet potatoes, cauliflower, bread, candy, pastry, cake, potatoes, even popcorn – and they come in a variety of forms – sugars, fiber and starches. Knowing all that, how do we choose?
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
Here’s the deal. The way carbs are processed in your body determines their nutritional value. The longer it takes the carb to release glucose into your blood, the better.
Some – called simple carbs – are absorbed and digested very quickly. Simple carbs are found in foods like cookies, corn syrup, table sugar, soft drinks and candy.
They provide that instant “hit” of energy but, as we know, the effect doesn’t last long and usually leads to an energy crash – and a craving for more sugary food. It’s a vicious cycle.
A diet rich in high fat, sugar and salt can lead to weight gain, raise blood pressure and even increase your level of cholesterol. All of these are high risk factors for cardiovascular diseases.
Complex carbs, by comparison, release energy (in the form of glucose) slowly. Complex carbs are found in vegetables such as broccoli, cauliflower and peas, grain food such as oatmeal and pasta, starchy vegetables like potatoes, corn and pumpkin, and beans, nuts and lentils.
Many complex carbs are found in whole plant based foods and are often high in vitamins and minerals.
Use the Glycemic Index to Identify Good Carbs
The Glycemic Index (GI) is a system that ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 100 based on the rate at which they increase our blood sugar, or blood-glucose, levels.
There are three categories:
- Slow-release carbs, which have a GI value of less than 55
- Intermediate-release carbs, which have a GI value of between 55 and 70
- Fast-release carbs, which have a GI value greater than 70.
The Type of Carb You Eat is More Important Than the Quantity
According to Harvard’s School of Public Health:
What’s most important is the type of carbohydrate you chose to eat because some sources are healthier than others.
The amount of carbohydrate in the diet – high or low – is less important than the type of carbohydrate in the diet. For example healthy whole grains such as whole wheat bread, rye, barley and quinoa are better choices than highly refined white bread or French fries.
Where Does Pasta Fit in?
Pasta is considered a complex carb, one of the good-for-you, slow-release carbs, and has a GI of just 41! It provides a nice, long release of energy to keep you fueled for hours. Endurance athletes “carbo-load” on pasta before races because it works.
Choose the Pasta You Like Best
There are also a wide variety of pastas to choose from – whole wheat, enriched, rice pasta, quinoa pasta, fresh egg pasta and, of course, the store-bought dry pasta made from semolina flour. Some even have a fair amount of protein as well. Check the nutritional label of your favorite brand. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Follow a Mediterranean Diet
When eaten as part of a healthy, balanced Mediterranean diet – including lean protein, beans, nuts, fresh, colorful veggies and fruit, and heart-healthy fats – pasta is an excellent source of complex carbohydrates – and will keep your energy level strong and stable whether you’re running a road race or running around doing errands with the kids.
Stick With Sensible Eating Habits
Now this doesn’t mean you can sit down and consume a vat of Fettuccine Alfredo and call it healthy eating. A little common sense and some portion control is still required.
However, it does mean that pasta can be the foundation for a wide variety of healthy and nutritious meals that taste great! Add lean meat, fresh seafood, seasonal veggies, a generous handful of anti-oxidant herbs and spices, and a splash of heart-healthy olive oil and you have a nutrient-dense, delicious dinner in under 30 minutes!
Try this easy pasta recipe that’s loaded with delicious flavor – and nutrition – and see how good healthy eating can be! Buon appetito!
Penne Pasta with Chicken, Asparagus, Peas and Cherry Tomatoes
Delicious, yet simple and easy to prepare. This healthy pasta dish contains complex carbs, as well as many other healthy ingredients, without compromising on taste.
- 1 box (16 oz.) Penne or Farfalle pasta
- 3 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 2 fresh garlic cloves, minced
- 1 small sweet onion, chopped
- 1 bunch of thin asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
- 1 cup shelled peas
- Himalayan salt & fresh-ground black pepper
- ¾ cup low-sodium chicken stock
- 1 cup of cooked chicken pieces
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- A handful of fresh basil leaves, rough chopped, with a few whole leaves for garnish
- Put a large pot of cold water on to boil over high heat. Cut up the garlic, onions, tomatoes and asparagus and set aside.
- Put a large saucepan on medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Add the onion, season with salt, and sauté for 2-3 minutes.
- Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the cherry tomatoes and the chicken stock.
- Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook until the tomatoes start to burst and the stock is reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Turn the heat to low until the pasta is ready.
- When the pasta water is at a rolling boil, add 2 tablespoons of salt and drop in the pasta. Stir well until the pasta is moving on its own. Cook, stirring occasionally, according to package directions minus 2 minutes.
- When the timer goes off, add the asparagus and the peas to the pasta water and cook for 1 more minute. The veggies will be cooked but still bright green and perfectly crisp when blanched in the pasta water. Reserve a cup of the pasta water and set aside.
- Test the pasta for doneness and drain. You want it al dente, or firm to the bite, as it will continue to cook in the sauce.
- Add the hot pasta and veggies to the saucepan.
- Stir gently to combine everything. Add the chicken pieces and cook for another minute to heat through.
- Add the reserved pasta water, a splash at a time, until the sauce becomes velvety smooth and coats the pasta well. Season to taste.
- Just before serving, add the chopped basil and half of the Parmesan cheese and combine.
- Serve immediately and garnish with the remaining Parmesan cheese, a tiny drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and the whole basil leaves. Add a fresh green salad on the side and dinner is done!