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What kind of carbohydrates are good for my heart?

Anthony L. Komaroff, MD
Internal Medicine
Although carbohydrates have been demonized in some popular diets, the right types of complex carbohydrates are good for your heart. That means eating lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while avoiding sugar, white bread, and other refined starches.

Vegetables and fruits. Diets that include multiple servings of vegetables and fruits lower the risk for hypertension, heart disease, and stroke. Whole fruits and those dark in color tend to be high in fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants -- all of which are good for health. Aim for five or more servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables per day.

Grain products. You can find grains in cereal, pasta, and bread. The best strategy is to avoid highly refined grains (white bread, white rice, and the like) and instead opt for whole-grain foods, such as whole-wheat bread and brown rice. First of all, the highly refined carbohydrates are digested quickly and tend to have a high rating on the glycemic index, a measure of the rate at which blood sugar rises after you eat a particular food. High-glycemic foods create a spike in blood sugar, or glucose, that triggers a surge of insulin to help cells use this nutrient. As glucose is "burned," blood sugar plummets, making you want to eat again. This "blood sugar roller coaster" boosts triglycerides, lowers helpful high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and increases the risk for heart attack in people who are overweight. Whole grains, on the other hand, take longer to digest and tend to be low on the glycemic index; they cause blood sugar levels to rise and fall more slowly. As a result, you will feel full longer while obtaining more nutrients. Aim for six or more servings of healthy grains per day.

Fiber. Slowly digested carbohydrates also tend to be high in fiber, a form of indigestible carbohydrate found mainly in plant foods. Fiber can produce a slight decrease in both total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Perhaps more significantly, a number of studies show that fiber helps to prevent heart disease and reduce the risk for a heart attack. The Institute of Medicine recommends 38 grams of fiber per day for men and 25 grams for women ages 50 and younger; men and women over 50 should get 30 and 21 grams per day, respectively.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.