Choosing your carbohydrates [Food list!]

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

'Should I avoid carbs completely, or eat carbs at each meal for fuel?'

Here is an excellent, all too common example of a binary question that appeals to a set of choices, each one at the opposite end of the spectrum. Either carbs are in, or they're out.

That isn't the right question.

I could ask you a hundred questions before suggesting the sources of foods classified as carbohydrates that you should eat (because remember, foods aren't just carbohydrates), and the portion, frequency and timing that's right for you.

But to settle the big, loaded question of 'should I or shouldn't I eliminate carbs', for most of us, you probably shouldn't. There's lots of biochemical, social, health and performance reasons for that. That's a topic for another day.

Instead, here are some better questions.

'What kinds of foods should I eat as my primary sources of carbohydrates?'

'How much should I eat?'

'And when should I eat them?'

Thinking about carbohydrates

There are plenty of methods to categorise carbohydrates as either 'this' or 'that' - simple or complex, high GI or low GI, high GL or low GL, processed or natural, whole or refined, etc. But things are more nuanced than a dual system.

Let's add some categories but keep it simple.

Here are 6 categories of carbohydrates.

The red, orange and yellow categories are higher in carbohydrates based on an average portion and tend to trigger a rapid increase in blood sugar. The foods in the red, orange and yellow categories are generally going to feature more prominently in your diet if you train frequently (in particular, resistance training or sports that demand high amounts of rapidly available energy), you hold a higher amount of muscle mass or you're quite lean. For you, eating enough carbs can help to fuel your training, boost your performance and promote recovery.

The pink, green and blue categories are your starting point if you're not all that active, you have some body fat to lose and you notice patterns of energy dips, sugar cravings, snacking, brain fog and stubborn weight gain. In that's you, you don't have to resort to abandoning carbs completely. The emphasise for you is prioritising real food sources first and using timing, common sense and flexibility to integrate other sources into your diet. Even if you're an athlete though, you should be eating from all 6 categories! If you only stick to the higher carb, energy dense foods, you'll miss out of the health promoting antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients contained in other vegetables and fruits, particularly in the blue category.

I have listed some foods for each category. This is not supposed to be the be all and end all of foods, but the foods here made the cut because: 

  • They tend to be easier to digest and tolerate. Ultimately, the digestibility of a food depends on you. If you don't tolerate potatoes or kidney beans, then don't choose potatoes or kidney beans. Or, figure out the reason for that. Your inability to tolerate that food could just be a food quality, food preparation or even a broader GI issue.

  • They are generally better quality and less processed, or if they are processed they are made from a single main ingredient and don't have other, artificial things added. I've made some distinctions to emphasise that a food that's called the same thing (ie, bread) can be dramatically different in quality. For example, a traditionally prepared sourdough is an entirely different thing to Wonder White loaf. Fresh, home made pasta at an Italian restaurant is more likely to be made from premium quality ingredients compared to mass manufactured spaghetti. 

  • They are more nutrient dense sources. If you can eat your carbs from real, fresh, seasonal plants, you'll also boost lots of other vitamins and minerals at the same time. Bonus.

Here's the bottom line. You don't need to avoid carbs entirely if you're making the right food choices for your body. Yes, different bodies have different tolerances and fuel demands at different times. The macro balance of your diet will depend on you, your body and your goals. But the point is that carbs aren’t evil, and if used (but not abused) can be a valuable tool to boost your health, performance, recovery and (the big one!) your ability to eat and enjoy food!