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Researchers say our diets are getting better, but we still need to eat more high-quality carbohydrates. Getty Images
  • Americans have made small improvements to their diet over the past two decades, but it’s still not enough.
  • Forty-two percent of daily calories are still coming from low-quality carbohydrates.
  • Low-quality carbs provide quick energy, but they’re largely devoid of nutrients.
  • High-quality carbs are more satiating, more nutritious, and help regulate the gut.

Americans are eating slightly healthier diets than they were two decades ago.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that despite modest dietary improvements, people in the United States are still eating too many low-quality carbohydrates.

A study published today from researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts reported that a significant percentage of the typical American’s daily calories comes from low-quality carbohydrates.

Fang Fang Zhang, PhD, co-senior author of the study and a cancer nutrition epidemiologist at the Friedman School, told Healthline that the research encompasses a large amount of data over an 18-year period.

“This study utilizes the most recent food intake data available and includes a very large representative sample of the American public, so we get as detailed and accurate a picture of the American diet as possible,” Zhang explained.

While total carb intake is down 2 percent and low-quality carb intake is down 3 percent, consumption of high-quality carbs is up only 1 percent. This modest improvement might be encouraging, but it still doesn’t make for a healthy diet, said Zhang.

“Although the overall carbohydrate intake went down somewhat for most Americans, the proportion of carbs that came from low-quality sources, such as refined grains, starchy vegetables, and added sugars, still represented the vast majority of carbohydrate intake and a very large portion — 42 percent — of our total daily calories,” she said.

“That’s a lot of carbohydrates consumed without the benefits we get from high-quality sources like whole grains and whole fruits, such as fiber,” Zhang added.

It’s easy to think of all carbohydrates as being the same.

After all, both high-quality and low-quality carbs are both classified under the same umbrella.

But there are some big differences, and it’s important to choose the right carbs for your needs.

“The general public isn’t adequately aware of the health risks of low-quality carbs and the health benefits of high-quality carbs,” Zhang said. “When making choices with carbs, we aren’t well-informed.”

So what are higher quality carbohydrates, also known as complex carbs?

“Think of complex carbs as taking your body longer to digest. They stay in your digestive system longer, keeping you full longer, so you’re less likely to overeat,” Sharon Zarabi, RD, CDN, DPT, bariatric program director at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, told Healthline.

“Simple carbs, on the other hand, are quickly metabolized in the body, so it doesn’t take as much work to break them down. They’re usually recommended for athletes who need quick bursts of energy for some form of physical activity,” Zarabi explained.

While a big plate of pasta and a sports drink might be a good pregame meal for an athlete, the reality is different for the average person who sits at their desk for much of the day.

These low-quality carbs provide fast-burning energy, but they’re largely devoid of the good stuff present in high-quality carbs.

“Complex carbohydrates, because they’re in their whole form, are not usually processed,” she said. “They contain a lot more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Another benefit of fiber, which we find in complex carbs, is that it helps decrease our risk of heart disease. It basically cleans out our digestive system and helps keep the gut healthy. You don’t find that with rapidly absorbed simple carbs.”

When it comes to identifying different types of carbs, color — or lack thereof — is a good indicator. Carb sources that are white in color — bread, wraps, rice, pasta, flour, and, of course, sugar — are simple carbohydrates.

Complex carbs, on the other hand, are foods such as bran, oats, quinoa, barley, and whole-wheat products.

It’s important to understand that lower-calorie alternatives aren’t necessarily healthier.

Ordering a sandwich with white bread might save a few calories over the whole-wheat option, but that doesn’t make it the better choice.

“We need to be aware of where our calories are coming from. It’s not enough to have a low-calorie diet, because even a low-calorie diet can be full of cookies and pretzels and highly processed foods,” Zarabi said. “Ordering a whole-wheat wrap versus a white wrap will give you more fiber and more whole, intact grains for just a few more calories.”

While the small improvements seen in the study still don’t constitute a healthy diet, they can be seen as something to build on.

Zarabi says that, as a dietitian, she encourages people to find ways to make healthy foods taste better.

After all, even the low-quality carbs that we eat too much of are typically modified with seasonings and oils to make them tasty. Therefore, the same can be done with high-quality carbs.

“As the plant-based diet becomes more prevalent, we’re learning to be creative with a head of cauliflower,” she said. “It doesn’t need to be part of a crudités platter. We could rice it, we could mash it, or turn it into a pizza crust.”

Zhang suggests mindfulness when it comes to snacking, such as choosing fresh whole fruit over a sugar-packed granola bar or eating steel-cut oats over instant oatmeal that contains added sugar.

She also says it’s crucial to see the study findings in a positive light.

“One of the key messages we hope to convey about this study is that the data can be used in a positive way: not to focus on what we’re doing wrong, but to guide us in making better choices,” Zhang said. “We can take this knowledge of our current dietary trends and apply it to our lives going forward.”