Are There Any Good Carbs?

Fruits Are Not the Devil, and Other Carb Concerns

Although I espouse a fairly “low-carb” lifestyle for optimal health and a lean physique, this certainly means different things to different people. For some it means a strict Atkins-style diet of virtually no carbs, save for green vegetables. For others it means the inclusion of fruits, starchy vegetables such as yams, and legumes. For others it means any and all carbs – grains, rice, beans, pasta – that are complex or “whole grain” rather than refined and processed (pastries, crackers, breads, white pasta).

My “low-carb” philosophy is essentially grounded in my belief in fresh, whole, natural foods. In other words, a lot of plants. Organic, grass-fed or wild animal products (eggs, beef, salmon) are also included in my “natural” categorization. I’m not at all opposed to carbs that are from vegetables; the American diet is sorely lacking in adequate vegetable intake and it’s lunacy to avoid vegetables in the hopes of losing weight, as many low-carb dieters do. Since I believe fiber is king when it comes to health, I’m all for eating 6 servings of veggies daily – at a minimum. I recommend fresh or frozen vegetables and a small amount of starchy vegetables and legumes for your daily diet.

An ideal meal.

This is Svanes’ Flickr Photo

But, I personally don’t encourage the consumption of grains, even whole grains. I think an occasional slice of sprouted-grain bread is fine, particularly if you’re an avid exerciser (and I hope you are). Additionally, I think the lectin fears about grains are rather overblown (another one of those marginal nutrition areas like wine, coffee, and dark chocolate). But a combination of vegetables and lean proteins offer more antioxidants, vitamins, protein, fat and even fiber (surprise!) than do grains.

This type of diet is easier for most humans to digest, as wheat gluten in particular is not friendly to the G.I. tract. Grains stimulate improper liver, thyroid, and pancreas responses in many people, and grains can also foster reduced immunity, fungal infections, skin problems, anxiety, depression and weight gain. Vegetables and lean proteins are more readily handled by your liver and pancreas, among other organs. Coupled with some much-needed beneficial fats such as organic butter, olive oil, nuts, avocados, and fish oil supplements, a vegetable-and-protein based diet is the most respectful to the human design. Consuming crackers, pasta and breads – even those manufactured with whole grains – is simply not ideal for the human body.

That said, other carbohydrates beside vegetables are, in fact, quite healthy – even some starchy ones such as yams, brown rice, and legumes. My concern is that many people rely on mostly refined and/or whole grains for their fiber intake and tend to “add in” some vegetables, when it ought to be the other way around. When it comes to vegetable sources of carbohydrates, we Americans favor starchy barely-vegetables like potatoes and corn. (Corn, by the way, is actually a grain, and a very low-protein, high-sugar grain at that.) Vegetables are a far superior source of carbohydrate because they do not impact blood sugar to the extent that grains do, they have important antioxidants and phytonutrients, they have far fewer calories, they are easier to digest, and they often have more fiber.

Salad possibilities are unlimited.

This is Laurel Fan’s Flickr Photo

Clearly, we need to be eating more vegetables. But it’s perfectly reasonable to eat some starchy vegetables and legumes on a daily basis, provided you are at a healthy weight you feel comfortable with, provided you exercise enough to burn your calories effectively, and provided you are not fighting diabetes or trying to reduce elevated blood sugar or triglycerides. If stress, inflammation, high triglycerides, type 2 diabetes or elevated blood sugar are medical conditions you are striving to overcome, you would do well to consider both eliminating grains and limiting starchy vegetables and legumes. And absolutely avoid the refined grains!

So, yes, there are plenty of “good” carbs. I don’t think eating bacon and steak is the path to fabulous health; no extreme diet is. (Although, it’s interesting to think about why we define certain things as extreme. What is extreme?)

I have my own version of the food pyramid. I call it my carb pyramid.

– At the base are vegetables – 6-11 servings daily.

– In the middle are things like legumes, brown rice, quinoa, wild rice, tempeh, soybeans, and oatmeal. Also in this category are the “whole grains” like sprouted bread, whole-wheat pasta, corn, and whole-grain crackers. These are best on a very infrequent basis or, if you have any of the previously mentioned health issues, not at all.

– And at the top are the no-no’s: pastries, cookies, cake, sweet sauces, breading, candy, sweetened beverages, white bread, white pasta, juice, chips.

A Word on Fruits

A reader recently emailed me about the issue of dried fruits. Are dried figs, dates, raisins, cranberries, apricots and the like a wise idea for those interested in health and weight loss?

Sure. The key is to realize that dried fruits are extremely caloric, and very high in natural sugars. Fruit is healthy, but fresh fruit provides more water content and fewer calories than dried fruit. Like fats, dried fruits are very nutritionally dense, so you don’t want to eat more than a handful now and then. I think a few servings a week of dried fruits is not a big deal at all – fruit is a natural, fiber-rich, vitamin-loaded food source. But because it is high in sugar – especially those dried fruits – you want to be careful to favor vegetables over fruits. Fruits taste better than vegetables to many people because fruits are so sweet. Who doesn’t love fruit? I do. But it’s important to make sure that, on balance, more of your plant carbohydrates are coming from vegetables. I think one or two fruit servings daily is plenty. Dried fruit is often the equivalent of four or five servings of fruit, so I’d recommend enjoying them just once or twice a week.

The other important thing to remember is that diet is not the only factor in weight management and good health. If you work out several times a week, not only will you live longer, boost immunity, reduce stress, and strengthen your bones and muscles, you’ll speed up your metabolism. If you don’t work out, you probably would need to live on steak and bacon and limited greens to lose weight. If you exercise, you can usually afford some starchy carbohydrates and certainly some fruit. Don’t overlook the vital necessity of exercise.

Note: if you’re one of the lucky devils to have a speedy metabolism that keeps you on the too-thin side of lean, enjoy fruits and starchy vegetables and legumes for those extra calories, but increase your fat intake a bit. This will help keep your blood sugar and triglycerides in balance.

Best of MDA

Everything I’ve Ever Said About Carbs

What do you think?

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[tags] low-carb, fruit, whole grains, corn, food pyramid, Atkins, carbohydrates, sugar, fiber [/tags]

TAGS:  is it primal?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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22 thoughts on “Are There Any Good Carbs?”

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  1. Mark,
    im a beginner and i want to lost fat to put my body 10% body fat at the same time having my musle and my volume,
    i want to know if my diet its on the right track, i eat in the morning oatmeal, 2 slides of whole wheat bread and an apple. then lunch time brown rice with half of beans and another green apple or pears and then i drink water. in the afternoon i get a yogurt with 2 slide of whole wheat bread another green apple and water.. when i come home i make a honey turkey glazed sandwich tomatoes spinach and melon after the gym i make brown rice spinach and corn or carrots or brocolli and then my protein. am i eating to many bread and apples let me know

    1. No its not on the right track; too much bread. On PD, do not comsume: oatmeal, bread, rice, beans or corn. Check out a few more articles.

  2. I like the Carb pyramid, Maybe there should be 2 pyramids 1 for carbs and 1 for fats. Makes more sence then lumping it all together.


  3. Someone else in the Paleo/Primal Nutrition world (I can’t remember who …) stopped using the term “low-carb and now uses “normal-carb” instead because during most of human history a Paleo diet was the norm.

  4. I want to know about grapefruit. it seems to be very low in carbs…and a weight loss fruit, so to speak, so i have read in a miilion different places.
    What is your take/ professional opinion?

  5. I passed a freind in the road, he told me the basics on Primal Blue Print.
    I lost 7 kg in 3 weeks, almost down to my weight 30 years ago.
    Now I have the book and it’s my bible.
    Love it, and it makes such good sense.
    Get up early and refreshed, gym is a little too easy now, especially as my mantra in my sport carreer was “no pain, no gain” what an idiot. Thanks Mark

  6. I’m not sold on the high-vege, high-fibre bandwagon. You can get the vitamin, minerals, and antioxidants elsewhere (even from coffee and fish oil capsules). And fibre – the science supporting fibre intake is really very weak and inconclusive. Personally, I enjoy better bowel health and regularity by consuming nil fibre. Would like an inquiry into fibre please.

  7. I eat a very high/lean protein/veggie diet. Berries & apples each day. Sprouted grain bread maybe 2xs per week. Would like to gain more muscle. I’m too lean but don’t want all the carbs to cause any inflammation. Not sure what to do?

  8. When i read this I knew this must’ve been one of your earlier articles.
    A lot of people have severe colon problems eating a diet high in indigestible plant matter like kale and broccoli.

    Talk about bloating, farting, exhaustion, feeling of coming down with something (when it’s the toxins produced by dead bacteria and their poop that crossed the barrier and are running free in the blood stream).

  9. I think steel-cut oats in the morning with berries and a spoonful of milled flax seeds is the best breakfast ever; keeps me filled until noon and provides a lot of fiber and vitamins. I am pretty sure that grain is not that evil if you eat the unprocessed version sparingly. These carbs will always be a better choice than bacon and cream in my opinion.

  10. I think science can be used to make the case for a number of nutritional variations that work. A few years ago the “research” concluded all fat was bad for us – now, not so much. With that said, I can use my own experience to guide me. Since adopting a primal-based diet, I have lost weight, but equally importantly, my energy levels have skyrocketed, blood sugars level have dropped, digestion and elimination can’t even be compared to pre-primal days (I literally didn’t know it could be this easy), but the most striking change has been in the inflammation in my body (inflammation could have contributed to my previous digestion/elimination challenges). I was a competitive athlete in contact sports or many years (hockey/football) and have lived with the joint and soft tissue injury pain as a constant for 30 years – with the almost daily help of pain killers. Within weeks of making the shift to Primal, the pain was noticeably eased within months it was barely noticeable. I have increased range of motion in the shoulder joints – can actually raise my arms above my head without pain – haven’t been able to do that in years. I was always hungry on a 2500 calorie diet, I now practice an “eat when hungry” approach and typically eat between 1500 and 1800 per day (I still have some fat reserves I am burning off) and feel completely stated – no more of the binge eating that was the result of me trying to limit my caloric intake. I am sold – cant see going back to processed or grain-based carbs.

  11. I am guided by Weston A Price’s book “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration” when it comes to carbs; there are many traditional cultures with excellent teeth and robust physical health who regularly consumed carbs; but it was fresh milled, sourdough breads, or taro root, or slow-cooked oatmeal porridge etc. The processing of the carbohydrate-rich foods, and the way the grain/tuber was sourced (organic, non-GM, seasonal, etc) were probably instrumental in making these “healthy foods”. Also, these peoples enjoyed vigorous active lifestyles, with satisfying communal/social lives and minimal chronic stress.

    Still, there is abundant evidence of good and robust health on traditional diets, which were more carbohydrate-rich (the ice age was over, after all!) – but the base/foundation diet of Man is the paleo diet. I would recommend looking at Weston’s book (it is available free on the Gutenberg Australia site), if you are interested.


  12. Hi

    I don’t eat many veggies. I know, I know, but I do not like them! Never have.

    I have had them in a smoothie and find that I can handle them that way. Is that ok?

    Also your thoughts on superfoods? Any particular brands? That would be my only hope I’m afraid.


  13. I do a lot of long distance cycling – and have type 2 diabetes, I need carbs to get by on those rides and curious to know what are the best carbs for this purpose. I would normally take fresh dates, wholemeal sandwich or a banana, sometimes some cycling products ie bars

  14. Hi Mark
    My name is Johannes.I live in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney Australia.I’m 55yrs old,married (26yrs) with 2 kids not living at home anymore.I work as a printer doing 3 twelve hour day shifts (always on my feet, going up and down steps).I’m 6″7 and 75kg.I have been 82kg for the last 30yrs but lost 7kg in the last 6months (paleo diet?,age?)and I don’t need to lose weight! I can burn 2000cal a day sitting on a chair! I feel good and lean but tired and feel I need (not crave) some carbs.I do my exercise and swim on my days off (not up to standard yet). I’ve been on the paleo diet for 6 weeks. Recently I had my bloods done and my cholesterol is up (always been spot on) and my white cell count lower than normal (always been low).This will be checked out further.Do I need to adjust diet/exercise?

  15. if “Like fats, dried fruits are very nutritionally dense, so you don’t want to eat more than a handful now and then”

    why is lots of fat encouraged, if they too, “are very nutritionally dense, so you don’t want to eat more than a handful now and then”

  16. Mark,

    I am ne to Primal eating and today I had the blueberry pancakes in the reaper article. I realized after that the tapioca flour as well as the maple syrup( organic) re high in carbs. Are the carbs from coconut and tapioca flour better?

    Also, I workout at 5am. I used to eat oatmeal as a pre workout breakfast, what is an ideal pre workout breakfast now?

  17. When I saw white rice on the bad carbs list, I couldn’t help but think of my grandparents who lived a long and healthy life whose diet centered around white rice When I saw white rice on the bad carbs list, I couldn’t help but think of my grandparents who lived a long and healthy life whose diet centered around white rice like in many asian cultures. Then again, their lives also required physically activity and lots of vegetables.