by: Holly R. Layer
I recently received a question about ‘carb substitutes.’ As I couldn’t engage the person directly, I didn’t know if they simply wanted GRAIN substitutes, or better sources of carbohydrates. So, I’ll start from the beginning and address both topics.
I like to tell my patients and clients that the term ‘carbohydrates’ can be equated to sugar, because that’s what they break down into in the body in the form of glucose. This glucose gets turned into energy (to use immediately) or to be stored in the muscles (to use later), and any additional goes to the liver to be stored as fat.
According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, our diets should be approximately 45-60% carbs, 20-35% fat and 10-35% protein. As you can see, carbs make up at least half of our energy intake. I realize that number may seem high, taking into account the recent low-carb craze, but stay with me–carbs are more than just bread and pasta, and we really do need that much for our bodies to function well. (There’s a lot more I can talk about in terms of refined vs. unrefined grains, fiber and starch, simple and complex carbs, but we only have so much room. Keep writing in questions!) For now, I’ll simply discuss food groups and carbohydrates.
Which brings me to our reader’s question about carb ‘substitutes.’ First of all, you cannot substitute protein and fat for carbs, but you CAN choose healthier carbs to eat. Remember that carbohydrates are made up of anything with natural sugars, which includes: grains, dairy, fruit and vegetables. So, when we say that approximately 50% of our calories should come from carbs, that doesn’t mean it should only be coming from bread (or other grain-based products), but from fruits, vegetables and dairy, too. In fact, as a dietitian, I’d rather you reach for fruits and vegetables first before grains and dairy.
So, we finally make it to substitutes for grain products in the carbohydrate category. Vegetables like white and sweet potatoes are packed with carbohydrates (for energy), low in calories, high in fiber and full of vitamins and minerals. Carrots and corn are also high in carbs, as well as fruits like bananas, apples and oranges. Also, beans (all kinds!) are high in carbs, and nuts and seeds have carbohydrates, too. Here’s a sample ‘menu’ for a day that features non-grain carbs to show you how easy it is to find energy in fruits, vegetables and dairy:
Breakfast: 2 eggs, scrambled with veggies, 1 oz cheese and 1 orange
Lunch: 2 C zucchini noodles, 1 C spaghetti sauce & meatballs, green salad
Snack: 1 banana with 1 T almond butter or ¼ C hummus and 1 cup veggies
Dinner: 4 oz steak, 1 roasted sweet potato, sautéed spinach
Dessert: 1 C berries with 1 C lowfat milk
To recap: Carbs give us energy, so they’re very important in our diet. They should make up about half of the calories we eat each day. Remember that carbs come in the form of fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains, and that it’s best to eat a variety of them. I always recommend reaching for fruits and vegetables before grains and dairy products to fulfill your carbohydrate needs.
And instead of your morning bowl of Cheerios, try one of my favorite breakfasts: 1 baked sweet potato topped with 1 tablespoon almond butter, 1 cup plain Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of cinnamon! YUM!
Holly R. Layer is a Registered Dietitian and a freelance writer. She works as a clinical dietitian at DeGraff Memorial Hospital in North Tonawanda and also provides nutritional counseling at Weigel Health Center at Buffalo State College, as well as teaching fitness classes at the Southtowns YMCA. She lives in the village with her husband, Andrew, an East Aurora native. She blogs at www.thehealthypineapple.com and her work appears monthly in the Refresh Buffalo Blog.