There are plenty of commercial diets that advocate cutting carbohydrates for instant weight loss and as a result, many Americans have become accustomed to counting the carbohydrate grams in the foods they eat and buy. The problem is our bodies need carbohydrate to function properly. So instead of avoiding this essential nutrient all together, make your carbohydrate work for you buy choosing foods that provide the nutrition needed for a healthy life.

In our bodies, carbohydrates are converted to glucose, our body’s main source of fuel. The brain, nervous system and blood cells all rely heavily on glucose to function properly. And while cutting out or cutting back on some carbohydrate heavy foods can be beneficial to your health (think pizza and donuts), there are many nutrient-dense carbs that have a place in your daily meal plan.

Choosing between simple and complex carbohydrates is the first step. Simple carbohydrates are exactly that: foods full of simple sugars that aren’t doing much for your body besides providing empty calories and probably tasting delicious. These foods, things like white bread, cookies and cakes, can have an occasional place in our diets, but in excess can contribute to weight gain, heart disease and diabetes.

Instead choose complex carbohydrates, which are foods that are minimally processed and deliver nutritional benefits like vitamins, minerals and fiber. Some great examples include whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables. And yes, fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates.

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Even though our bodies can’t actually digest it, fiber is another important reason we need carbohydrates in our diet. Fiber helps regulate the body’s use of sugars, and appears to reduce the risk of developing many health conditions like digestive irregularities, heart disease and diabetes. A high-fiber diet is typically lower in calories and contributes bulk to your meals, making you feel full faster and longer. The daily recommendation is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. A diet high in plant-based foods can help you meet your daily fiber needs, so add extra vegetables to soups and casseroles, oats to meatloaf and breads, and top your yogurt or salad with fresh fruit.

The next time you are tempted to count carbohydrates, instead make your carbohydrates count by remembering the source is more important than the amount.

Taryn Palmer is a registered dietitian for the Magic Valley YMCA.

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