In the last of our four-part series on evidence-based nutritional guidelines, we’re talking carbs. Many of the diets being promoted today focus on achieving a certain, typically low (or very low) percentage of carbs in your diet. But what appears to matter more for your overall health is the quality of the carbohydrates you eat, with high fiber, complex carbohydrates having a beneficial effect on your health and simple, refined carbs having a detrimental effect. Simple carbs include sugars (table sugar, naturally occurring sugar and various forms of sugars added to the foods we eat), as well as grains that have been stripped of their natural benefits—i.e., fiber and nutrients. These refined grains include white bread, pizza dough, pasta, pastries, white rice and many breakfast cereals, among others.

#4. Choose quality carbs.

So why do we now believe this? It all comes down to fiber. We’ve always heard fiber is ‘good,’ right? Some of us even know about soluble and insoluble fiber (hint: both are good). But what we’ve learned through research published in the last decade is the importance of fiber (soluble, in particular) to the universe of bacteria that live in your gut (a.k.a., microbiota). Because fiber is indigestible, it travels through the stomach and small intestine to the large intestine, where it helps to increase the number and diversity of gut bacteria, which researchers believe helps protect against chronic inflammation, regulate metabolic function and improve digestion—which can help reduce your risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some forms of cancer. Simple carbs don’t have this beneficial effect on bacteria; sugar, in particular. Whole grains also help you feel fuller longer than their processed counterparts (brown rice vs. white rice, for example).

Here’s what you can do to help your gut bacteria thrive and improve your overall nutrition with whole grains:

Try unfamiliar grains in a few different ways to see what you like.

In my experience, the ease of cooking makes all the difference. The first time I cooked farro on the stove top it took forever and was still too “chewy/al dente” for my taste. When I tried cooking it in the rice cooker on the longer brown rice setting or in the Instapot, it was much easier/faster/better tasting. A great way to try different whole grains is to make a batch of the grain, add beans and grilled veggies, include herbs and spices, and mix together with olive oil and lemon juice to taste.

Having a hard time transitioning from white to brown rice?

I get it. Do a stepwise transition, or aim for “more” whole grain rather than “only” whole grain. My family found it much easier to make this transition when we mixed half and half white and brown rice for a while. You can also add riced cauliflower to your rice, or other grains such as quinoa (which is actually a high protein seed but “acts” like a grain and is so easy to cook).

Beans and legumes, please!

These are nutritional powerhouses that are versatile, easy to cook, and inexpensive. Add them to soups, salads, and bowls with a grain and veggies, or just serve on the side of a meal. As I suggested in our segment on the benefits of cooking at home, making a pot of beans that will last for the week is so much more flavorful than canned. My kids ask for “mommy’s famous pinto beans” all the time. All I do is cook dried pintos in the Instapot (after the rapid soak cycle) with some peeled garlic, thyme, bay leaf, and salt.

Do not drink your calories.

The standard American diet (known as the SAD diet) is full of sugar-sweetened beverages that do not fill you up or provide any nutritional value. Aim to remove these from your diet or save for a rare treat and I promise over time you will not miss them.

Change your mindset.

If you are planning a meal and you simply aim to increase the fiber, you’ll come out ahead.

Jewel salad – a favorite in my house! Click the image to get the recipe courtesy of the Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives initiative and the Culinary Institute of America.

Thank you for sticking with me through this series! I truly believe that making (mostly) healthy nutritional choices is medicine. And I hope you’ve learned that “eating better” doesn’t have to be hard. It doesn’t have to involve tracking and complex calculations of macronutrients. It doesn’t have to involve apps and costly subscriptions. Heck, it doesn’t even have to involve reading labels (if it doesn’t have a nutritional label it’s likely a whole unprocessed food). Focus on cooking. Whole food. The end.

Be sure to read the other posts in our series to learn more ways to incorporate eating habit changes into your daily life: