11 Nutrient Dense Sources of Healthy Carbs

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    Picture of a Bunch of Green Spinach Leaves.Following the previous post in the nutrient-density series, this article looks at the final macro-nutrient – carbohydrate.

    Carbs are one of the most controversial nutrition topics in recent years, but there is a big difference between “good” and “bad” carbs.

    In other words, this article will examine the healthier carb options; no sugar, wheat flour, pasta, rice or any of the other energy-dense processed foods.

    The list starts at the low carb end of the scale and progressively moves to higher carb foods.

    At each point, the focus is on the foods with the highest nutrient density.

    If you’re on a low-carb diet, then it may be better to stay away from the bottom half of the list, depending on how moderate or strict you are.

    All nutritional data is per 100g.

    Foods in the Low-Carb Range

    1. Beet Greens

    A Bunch of Beet Greens on a White Surface.

    Calories: 22 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  4.3g
    Fiber: 3.7g
    Net Carbs: 0.6g
    Carbohydrate Density:  78.2%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Vitamin K1: 500% RDA
    • Vit A Carotenoids: 127% RDA
    • Vitamin C: 50% RDA
    • Potassium: 22% RDA
    • Manganese: 20% RDA

    Beet greens belong on this list of good carbs due to their incredible nutrient density.

    For only 22 calories, you get significant amounts of vitamins A, C and K1, and essential minerals such as potassium and manganese (1).

    NB: provitamin A (carotenoids) need to convert to vitamin A in the body, and are not as bioavailable as animal foods.

    Surprisingly, many people don’t realize that beet greens are edible and throw them away when growing beets.

    Don’t make this mistake, as they’re a very nutritious food with a lot of benefits.

    In fact, they contain more nutrients and antioxidants than do the beets they grow on, and they improve antioxidant status in animal studies (2).

    Key Point: Beet greens are full of beneficial vitamins and minerals. Compared to their calorie count, they are one of the most nutrient-dense carbs in the world.

    2. Spinach

    Some Spinach Leaves Bound Together.

    Calories: 23 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  3.6g
    Fiber: 2.2g
    Net Carbs: 1.4g
    Carbohydrate Density:  62.6%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Vitamin K1: 604% RDA
    • Vit A Carotenoids: 188% RDA
    • Folate: 49% RDA
    • Vitamin C: 47% RDA
    • Manganese: 45% RDA

    Made famous by a cartoon character, spinach is a healthy source of carbohydrate which contains a range of health-promoting nutrients.

    In addition to the nutrients above, spinach also contains a small amount of protein and a decent supply of magnesium and potassium (3).

    However, it’s always a good idea to eat leafy greens with a source of fat. For one thing, dietary fat increases the bioavailability of the fat-soluble vitamins in vegetables (4, 5).

    Spinach tastes especially good when sauteed in some butter.

    There may also be some substantial health benefits from spinach consumption due to the vegetable’s nitric oxide content.

    Notably, randomized trials show that spinach improves arterial stiffness, endothelial function, and reduces blood pressure compared to control groups (6, 7).

    Overall, spinach is one of the most nutrient-dense foods around.

    Key Point: Overall, spinach is potentially the most nutrient-dense vegetable around.

    3. Seaweed

    Freshly Prepared Seaweed - Kelp Noodles Side Dish.

    Calories: 43 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  9.6g
    Fiber: 1.3g
    Net Carbs: 8.3g
    Carbohydrate Density:  89.3%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Vitamin K1: 82% RDA
    • Folate: 45% RDA
    • Magnesium: 30% RDA
    • Calcium: 17% RDA
    • Iron: 16% RDA

    Seaweed is an interesting type of sea vegetable.

    Although somewhat uncommon in the Western world, it plays a significant role in the East Asian diet. It is a mainstay of Japanese and Korean cuisine and has many potential health benefits.

    In addition to the nutrient profile shown above, seaweed is also the world’s most significant source of dietary iodine (8, 9).

    Iodine is a highly beneficial mineral for our immunity system, but an excessive amount can also be harmful (10, 11).

    For this reason, one portion of seaweed per week is probably more than enough.

    Interestingly, seaweed has a range of additional compounds that we still don’t know much about. These include some unique marine phytonutrients such as fucoxanthin and fucoidan.

    Fucoxanthin and fucoidan both appear to have some anti-cancer properties, in addition to having beneficial impacts on blood-glucose regulation and cardiovascular health (12, 13, 14).

    Key Point: Seaweed is a nutrient-dense sea vegetable and further research may show it to have a whole lot more benefits.

    4. Kale

    A Pack of Kale Leaves Tied Together.

    Calories: 28 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  5.6g
    Fiber: 2.0g
    Net Carbs: 3.6g
    Carbohydrate Density:  80%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Vitamin K1: 1021% RDA
    • Vit A Carotenoids: 272% RDA
    • Vitamin C: 68% RDA
    • Manganese: 21% RDA
    • Potassium: 22% RDA
    • Manganese: 20% RDA

    Personally, I’m not a huge fan of kale—or the huge juicing craze—but it is one of the most nutritious vegetables.

    Rivalling spinach in the nutrients it provides, it’s a particularly large source of vitamins K1, beta-carotene and vitamin C (15).

    That said, remember that plant-based fat-soluble vitamins like beta-carotene/carotenoids are not so bioavailable.

    As they need to convert to an active form (retinol) of the vitamin in our body, we can increase the absorption rate by eating them with a source of fat.

    Kale contains a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, and studies demonstrate it has some useful health benefits;

    • Randomized controlled trials show that kale reduces post-prandial increases in plasma glucose (blood sugar response) after a high carbohydrate meal (16).
    • In a further trial, subjects were randomized to either a placebo, low-intake or high-intake group for kale. Over 12 weeks, the subjects with high baseline triglyceride levels including kale in their diet had “significantly lower triglyceride levels” (17).
    Key Point: Kale is extremely nutrient-dense – it’s one of the best vegetables for vitamins and minerals.

    5. Blackberries

    Picture of Blackberries With a Blackberry Leaf.

    Calories: 43 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  10.2g
    Fiber: 5.3g
    Net Carbs: 4.9g
    Carbohydrate Density:  94.9%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Vitamin C: 35% RDA
    • Manganese: 32% RDA
    • Vitamin K1: 25% RDA
    • Copper: 8% RDA
    • Vitamin E: 6% RDA

    Generally speaking, fruit doesn’t provide as many vitamins and minerals as vegetables do and that is the case with blackberries.

    However, blackberries belong in the ‘healthy carbs’ group, and they still contain a fair amount of micronutrients – particularly vitamin C (18).

    Wild blackberries are especially tasty, and studies show they are more nutritious than their commercial counterparts (19, 20).

    Blackberries usually grow in the summer months, and they are most prevalent between June and August.

    Similar to most plant foods, blackberries are a source of phytonutrients. Numerous studies show potential health benefits include neuroprotective and cardiovascular benefits (21, 22, 23).

    Overall, blackberries are a low-sugar, high-fiber fruit with numerous health benefits.

    Key Point: Blackberries are one of the best berries for health, and they’re also among the most nutrient-dense fruits.

    Foods in the Medium-Carb Range

    6. Sweet PotatoPicture of Some Sweet Potatoes, Whole and Halves.

    Calories: 86 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  20.1g
    Fiber: 3g
    Net Carbs: 17.1g
    Carbohydrate Density:  93.5%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Vit A Carotenoids: 284% RDA
    • Manganese: 13% RDA
    • Vitamin B6: 10% RDA
    • Potassium: 10% RDA
    • Copper: 8% RDA

    Sweet potatoes provide approximately 20g carbohydrate per 100g (24).

    They belong to the yam and tuber category of foods and offer more starch in comparison to fibrous vegetables.

    Despite this, they are still relatively low in carbohydrates compared to grains (which are around 70g carbohydrate per 100g.)

    Like other orange/yellow vegetables such as carrots and pumpkins, sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene.

    One more time: this makes consuming them with a source of fat a good idea!

    The best way to cook a sweet potato is to bake it for around 50 minutes, make a cut down the middle, and put some butter in there to melt.

    Like most tubers, sweet potatoes are very adaptable, and you can mash, steam, bake, boil, or even grill them.

    Key Point: Sweet potatoes are one of the most nutritious choices in the medium-carb range.

    7. “Okinawan” Purple Sweet Potato

    Picture of Okinawan Purple Sweet Potatoes Cut in Half.

    Calories: 67 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  16.3g
    Fiber: 3.7g
    Net Carbs: 12.6g
    Carbohydrate Density:  97.3%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Potassium: 12% RDA
    • Manganese: 12% RDA
    • Vitamin B6: 9% RDA
    • Thiamin (B1): 7% RDA
    • Copper: 6% RDA

    The purple sweet potato has a striking purple flesh, and it goes under the guise of several different names.

    Depending on where you live, you may also hear people referring to it as any of the following names;

    • Hawaiian Mountain Yam
    • Mountain Yam
    • Okinawan Sweet Potato
    • Purple Yam

    As shown in the table, purple sweet potatoes contain a slightly lower carb content than conventional sweet potatoes. They also miss the carotenoid content which regular sweet potatoes offer (25).

    On the positive side, purple yams are known for their concentration of anthocyanins.

    These compounds are a kind of antioxidant which is present in other purple foods such as blueberries and red wine.

    In fact, purple sweet potatoes have a higher concentration of these antioxidants than do blueberries.

    A 2017 systematic review found that anthocyanins significantly improved glycemic control, insulin sensitivity, and lipid profiles (27).

    These sweet potatoes were the focal point of the famed Okinawan diet, and the locals there attribute them to the longevity of the Islanders.

    Key Point: These violet/lavender toned potatoes are full of nutrients and antioxidants, and they’re one of the healthiest medium-carb foods.

    8. Garlic

    Three White Bulbs of Garlic.

    Calories: 149 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  33.1g
    Fiber: 2.1g
    Net Carbs: 31g
    Carbohydrate Density:  88.9%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Manganese: 84% RDA
    • Vitamin B6: 62% RDA
    • Vitamin C: 52% RDA
    • Selenium: 20% RDA
    • Calcium: 18% RDA

    It may be surprising to learn that garlic is more carbohydrate-rich than sweet potatoes.

    Garlic contains over 33g carbs per 100g, with an 88.9% carbohydrate density (28).

    However, due to the overpowering flavor of garlic, it is typically kept to a small amount in recipes.

    In addition to keeping the vampires away, garlic has several other health benefits.

    Several systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials show that garlic consumption reduces blood pressure and fasting blood glucose levels. Additionally, it appears to improve the overall cholesterol profile (29, 30, 31).

    Adding a few cloves of garlic provides a great-tasting, healthy addition to any meal.

    Likewise, some roast meat cooked together with garlic and mushrooms makes a delicious, nutrient-dense meal.

    Key Point: There are good carbs and bad carbs, and garlic definitely belongs to the former group. It’s a very nutritious carbohydrate-based food.

    Foods in the High-Carbohydrate Range

    The following foods are some of the most nutrient-dense high-carb options.

    9. Cocoa Powder

    Cocoa Powder on a White Background Spelling the Word Cocoa.

    Calories: 228 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  45.4g
    Fiber: 33.9g
    Net Carbs: 11.5g
    Carbohydrate Density:  61.6%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Copper: 181% RDA
    • Magnesium: 119% RDA
    • Iron: 81% RDA
    • Phosphorus: 76% RDA
    • Potassium: 72% RDA

    Generally speaking, I dislike the ‘superfood’ term. However, cocoa is probably deserving of that name when it comes to its mineral profile – it is incredibly nutrient-dense.

    Cocoa powder is also interesting in that it’s a high-carb food, yet almost all the carbohydrate comes in the form of fiber (32).

    Furthermore, cocoa naturally contains significant amounts of antioxidant polyphenols which may help to protect against various health conditions.

    In particular, one of the best benefits seems to be on the cardiovascular system.

    Randomized trials show that human subjects who consume cocoa experience improvements in blood pressure and cardiac function (33, 34).

    Additionally, in another randomized controlled trial, inflammatory markers fell in healthy men 2 hours after consuming 50g dark chocolate. In contrast, inflammatory markers stayed the same in a placebo group eating a ‘chocolate’ flavor placebo (35).

    The health benefits of cocoa primarily come from using real cocoa powder or dark chocolate at the higher cocoa % range. Ideally, aim for a minimum of 70%. Personally, I prefer 85% as it’s very low in sugar but also a lot tastier than the bars in the 90% plus range.

    Yep, sorry – a bar of Cadbury’s or Hershey’s won’t cut it!

    Key Point: Cocoa, cacao nibs, and dark chocolate are all relatively high in carbohydrate yet very healthy. The fact they taste delicious is a nice bonus.

    10. Kidney Beans

    Red Kidney Beans in a Bowl on a White Background.

    Calories: 337 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  60.1g
    Fiber: 25g
    Net Carbs: 35.1g
    Carbohydrate Density:  71.3%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Folate: 98% RDA
    • Manganese: 56% RDA
    • Thiamin (B1): 41% RDA
    • Phosphorus: 41% RDA
    • Potassium: 39% RDA

    We are now entering high carbohydrate territory, so these foods aren’t the best option for those on a low-carb diet.

    However, for those who eat higher carb, they are so much better than eating the typical bread, pasta, and breakfast cereals.

    As can be seen in the table, kidney beans, which belong to the legume family of foods, provide a decent range of nutrients – particularly for folate and manganese. They also contain a respectable amount of protein (36).

    These dark red to burgundy beans are a type of pulse which is edible only when cooked. Surprisingly, they are toxic in their raw state due to their significant phytohemagglutinin content.

    Phytohemagglutinin is a kind of lectin, and it can cause severe symptoms such as prolonged nausea and vomiting, which may require hospitalization (37, 38).

    For this reason, it is essential to soak red kidney beans—preferably overnight—and to then boil them for at least 15 minutes. This eliminates the phytohemagglutinin content.

    Don’t cook them at a low temperature in a slow cooker, as this is one way you can end up with lectin/food poisoning.

    Key Point: Red kidney beans are one of the most nutrient-dense higher carb options – just be sure to cook them properly.

    11. Lentils

    Picture of Lentils in a Bowl on a White Background.

    Calories: 337 kcal
    Carbohydrate:  60.1g
    Fiber: 30.5g
    Net Carbs: 29.6g
    Carbohydrate Density:  71.3%
    Top 5 Nutrients:
    • Folate: 120% RDA
    • Manganese: 67% RDA
    • Thiamin (B1): 58% RDA
    • Phosphorus: 45% RDA
    • Iron: 42% RDA

    A dietary staple throughout South Asia, the lentil is another edible pulse belonging to the legume family.

    Lentils have a strikingly similar nutritional profile to red kidney beans. However, they have a slightly higher protein, fiber, and mineral content.

    Interestingly, their fiber content accounts for more than 50% of the total amount of carbohydrates (39).

    Personally, I suspect the purported benefits of fiber are mainly applicable to higher carb diets.

    For instance, numerous studies demonstrate that fiber in carbohydrate-dense meals reduces the postprandial (post-meal) blood glucose response (40, 41).

    As a result, fibrous carbs (rather than refined) are particularly essential to a healthy diet when carbohydrate intake is high.

    Compared to other high-carb foods, the fibrous nature of lentils and their protein content leads to better satiety and a relative reduction in appetite and food cravings (42, 43).

    Key Point: Lentils are one of the most nutritious choices in the high-carb bracket of foods.

    Final Thoughts

    Sometimes we hear the message that carbs are critical to our health, and other times we hear the opinion that any amount is unhealthy.

    Personally, I think neither is true and that carbohydrate (as a whole) is neither essential nor inherently “bad.”

    However, there are healthy and unhealthy options; the typical foods in the standard American diet belong on the list of “bad” carbs.

    On the other hand, the foods in this article are among the most nutrient-dense of choices for each carbohydrate range.

    Interested in high-fat foods? 

    For a list of nutrient-dense foods high in fat, just click here.

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