The 5 Best Carbs for a Flat Belly (and 4 you MUST avoid)
The acronym representing the Standard American Diet (SAD) is quite fitting, as it is indeed sad how typical Americans (and individuals in the vast majority of developed nations) eat today. According to the USDA, over 63% of the calories consumed by the average American come from processed foods, including added sugars, refined grains, and added fats and oils.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that consumption of refined carbohydrates (e.g., processed flours and the “foods” that are made with them like breads, breakfast cereals, bagels, noodles and pasta, baked goods, crackers, etc.; refined sugars like table sugar and high fructose corn syrup) is closely related to obesity and various forms of chronic illness, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In fact, numerous studies have linked consumption of these high-glycemic carbohydrates to obesity. In addition to being packed with heavily-refined carbohydrates that rapidly spike blood sugar and insulin, processed foods have been stripped of beneficial micronutrients (e.g., vitamins and minerals), phytonutrients, and fiber.
With that in mind, it’s easy to wonder if all carbohydrates are “bad” and if a low-carb diet is the only way to achieve your health, body composition, and performance goals. While low-carb diets may be effective for some folks and/or for certain periods of time, the research does not support that long-term low-carb dieting is more effective than other diets.
While there are plenty of “bad” options out there, as processed carbohydrates are seemingly ubiquitous, it should be increasingly clear that not all carbohydrates are created equal. It’s not fair to lump all carbohydrate-dense foods into a single category. And you certainly don’t have to completely eliminate carbs from your diet to achieve your health, body composition, and performance goals, especially when you choose the best sources.
With that in mind, here are five of our top carbs for a flat belly, which will leave you full and satisfied while supporting your body transformation goals.
What are Good Carbs for a Flat Belly?
Berries and Cherries: Berries like blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries are nutrient-dense, and they are high in both water and fiber, which can help keep you full. What’s more, they’re naturally sweet, which will help satisfy your sweet tooth, and they are low glycemic, which will help you manage your blood sugar and insulin levels.
The health benefits of berries, with their dark pigments indicating their rich polyphenol content, have been demonstrated in various nutrition studies. Research suggests that these nutritional powerhouses may have cardioprotective effects as well as benefits ranging from aging to metabolic syndrome.
Mixed Beans: Beans are an excellent plant-based source of protein, and depending on the type, they provide upwards of 12 grams of fiber per 1-cup serving. Dietary fiber and protein are two nutrients researchers have found to be positively associated with satiety (feelings of fullness).
Overall, the research is quite clear that adding 3 – 5 cups (per week) of beans to your diet may have some significant beneficial effects on your body composition as well as your cardiovascular health. There are many options to choose from, including black beans, dried peas, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, lentils, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans, and more.
Quinoa: While this “ancient grain” has the taste, texture, and mouth feel of a grain, quinoa is a gluten-free seed, which contains double the protein of brown rice along with greater fiber content and a lower glycemic load.
Not only that, quinoa is the ONLY grain-like food to contain the full spectrum of amino acids, making it a “complete” protein. Quinoa has a unique, nutty taste and chewy texture. It is also high in several antioxidants in the vitamin E family, and it is a good source of the essential nutrients manganese, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, folate, and zinc.
Sprouted Grain Bread: Sprouted grains are distinctly different from their traditionally harvested high-glycemic, refined-carbohydrate counterparts, and they have many favorable advantages over conventional grains like wheat. What’s more, sprouted grain breads are completely flour-free.
That’s right, you’ll actually be consuming the whole grain. Sprouted grain breads are truly made with whole grains, unlike the vast majority of store-bought breads, which are made from wheat flour. The pulverization of a grain into flour essentially creates a heavily processed carbohydrate, which rapidly enters the bloodstream. As mentioned above, fast-digesting carbohydrates result in rapid elevations in blood sugar and insulin levels, which is not an ideal combination for folks looking to lose body fat.
Some of the benefits of sprouted grains include increased digestibility, increased absorption of minerals, increased antioxidants (including vitamin C and B vitamins), increased fiber, and a source of complete protein.
In addition to sprouted grains, other minimally-processed, intact whole grains are also good carbohydrate choices, including whole or steel-cut oats; wild, brown, or red rice; amaranth; buckwheat groats; kamut or spelt grains; maize; millet; and barley.
Vegetables: Packed with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber, it’s no secret that a diet plentiful in vegetables confers many health benefits. According the United States Department of Agriculture, eating a diet rich in vegetables may:
- Reduce the risk of heart disease, including heart attack and stroke;
- Protect against certain types of cancers;
- Reduce the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes;
- Lower blood pressure; and
- Help decrease bone loss.
While consuming a diet high in vegetables is associated with lower risks for numerous chronic diseases, the impact of eating vegetables on weight management has not been as widely researched. However, recent studies indicate that higher consumption of vegetables during weight-loss efforts is correlated with more weight and fat lost.
With that said, it’s best to consume a variety of vegetables, as deficiencies in any color group can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and more. To optimize health and body composition, it’s recommended to eat at least one cup of each color every day, and the great news is that you have a laundry list from which to choose:
- Bell peppers
- Bok choy
- Brussels sprouts
- Collard greens
- Green beans
- Romaine lettuce
- Sea vegetables
- Turnip greens
Which Bad Carbs Should You Cut to Lose Weight?
With all of the talk about the importance of fiber above, you may think that there’s a good reason to consume high-fiber foods like:
- Whole wheat bread
- Whole-grain pasta
- Bran flakes and other wheat-based “fiber” cereals
- Whole wheat tortillas and wraps
Despite having more fiber than their “white” counterparts, these 4 high-fiber foods are typically overconsumed, and they can destroy your blood sugar and give rapid rise to the fat-storing hormone insulin. In fact, believe it or not, 2 slices of whole wheat bread can raise blood sugar higher than a can of sugar-sweetened soda or even a sugary candy bar. This is because the wheat of today is nothing like the wheat of generations ago, having been genetically modified by the food industry, mutated, and exposed to industrial toxins and radiation to force an unnatural higher yield at the expense of your health.
These harmful wheat products, although praised by food manufacturers as healthy for their fiber and “whole grain” content, are a major cause of the raging obesity epidemic in western society today. Even more, because they are so rapidly digested, these foods provide virtually no metabolic benefit during digestion, resulting in less than optimal metabolic rates, and ever-expanding bellies worldwide.
When Is the Best Time to Eat Carbs?
The timing of when you take in your carbs can also be a key to your success. In fact, by using timing strategies, you can often eat your favorite carbs without the risk of them spilling over to become body fat. So, when are the best times to eat carbs for a flat belly?
1. In the morning: One of the best times to consume carbs is in the morning, right after you wake up.
Overnight, while you sleep, your body fasts and burns through carbohydrates that it has stored away, also known as glycogen. When you eat carbs first thing in the morning, your body uses these carbs to replenish what you lost overnight, rather than storing them as fat.
One of the best things you can do is reach for some steel-cut oats, homemade granola, or even a little bit of fruit.
2. 3 – 4 hours before a rigorous exercise session: Because carbs are so critical to providing energy, consuming carbs before your workout is a must, as the more energy you have, the harder you train.
You could easily opt for the same carb sources you had at breakfast, or, alternatively, switch things up a little. Quinoa, rice, and sweet potatoes are all nutrient-dense, minimally processed carbohydrates that will work just great for fueling your workout, whether you’re hitting the weights or getting in some high-intensity cardio.
3. Post workout: Those glycogen stores are used up when you train hard, so for you to replenish and allow your body to shuttle nutrients, you need carbs in your post-workout meal.
Additionally, carbs help shuttle insulin to the muscle cells, and this accelerates the delivery of nutrients such as protein to the broken-down muscle tissue.
When you neglect your post-workout carbs, your muscles simply won’t recover like they should. You will likewise feel sorer, and over time you may even lose some lean muscle tissue. When you don’t feed your muscles, your metabolism drops, and you’ll likely be training at suboptimal levels until you get this under control.
Should I Avoid Carbs at Night?
As mentioned above, it has been thought that the “best” times to eat carbs are in the morning (i.e., first meal of the day) and around the workout period (e.g., before and/or after exercise). In the case of the latter, Dr. Mike T. Nelson talks a lot about the concept of “metabolic flexibility,” which simply refers to one’s ability to alternate between fuels (e.g., fats, carbs).
In general, the body would prefer to use fat during low-intensity activity (e.g., sitting, standing, low-intensity aerobic exercise) and carbs during high-intensity activities (e.g., HIIT, sprinting, weight training). As a result, Dr. Mike would suggest having carbs immediately pre- and post-workout (along with protein, of course). The rest of the day, he would suggest focusing predominantly on healthy fats, lean proteins, and veggies to your heart’s delight.
That seems like a very reasonable course of action; however, I do want to reiterate that timing your carbs in this fashion is likely not the most important factor in the overall scheme of things. Rather, food quality and quantity seem to be much more important drivers of progress. So, if you were to eat the exact same types and amounts (i.e., calories and carbs held constant) of carbs in the evening (versus the morning) over a period of time, I would be hard pressed to believe you would lose less fat and/or gain weight.
In fact, in a recent study published in the journal Obesity, researchers found that overweight folks who ate a larger percentage of their daily carbohydrates at dinner lost more weight, body fat, and inches from their waistlines compared to a group that ate the same number of daily calories in a more traditional way (e.g., more carbs at breakfast and lunch).
Not only that, this strategy of eating more carbs later in the day helped shift hunger hormones, resulting in less hunger throughout the day. What’s more, eating some carbs later may help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can disrupt sleep. Carbs also promote the release of a “feel-good” molecule called serotonin, which promotes satiety, feelings of wellbeing, and restful night’s sleep.
With that in mind, I encourage folks to not be afraid to include a portion of beans, lentils, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, or quinoa in your meal. Again, we’re talking about healthy, fiber-rich, low-energy-dense carbs for a flat belly. As you can imagine, most people may get into trouble when the quality of the carbs decreases, the palatability factor increases, and the density of the calories increases.
How Can I Avoid Storing Carbs as Fat?
I recommend these effective strategies for improving your carbohydrate tolerance, increasing your insulin sensitivity, and improving your blood sugar management:
1. Incorporate high-intensity, high-volume strength training daily.
Numerous studies have shown that training with weights can have a profound impact on insulin sensitivity, with the most beneficial effects seen with protocols that incorporate many sets and many reps, such as 5 sets of 8 repetitions per body part, repeated for a total of 3 exercises per body part.
These high-volume strength training workouts deplete stored carbohydrates in muscle tissue (again, known as glycogen), and increase insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake in muscle to replenish these depleted energy stores.
2. Supplement with cinnamon (6 grams per day).
In a rather compelling study conducted by Dr. Alam Khan published in Diabetes Care, 30 men and 30 women were randomly assigned to either consume up to 6 grams of cinnamon daily or a placebo (AKA, fake cinnamon) for a period of 40 days. After the 40-day testing period, those who consumed the actual cinnamon reduced their fasting blood glucose by 18 – 29%, while the placebo group experienced no significant changes.
Other studies have shown large, substantial quantities of cinnamon to have acute, positive effects on insulin sensitivity and blood sugar management in response to a meal.
3. Follow a low-carbohydrate diet (less than 30 grams of carbs per day) for 8 weeks or longer.
This strategy that calls for you to “recharge” your insulin receptors (the “lock” to insulin’s “key”) by avoiding carbohydrates in your diet for an extended period of time, especially sugar, and most importantly, high fructose corn syrup, a manmade sweetener created by the food industry that spikes blood sugar levels higher than virtually any other carb.
And while you should make it a point to never consume high fructose corn syrup due to its long list of negative health consequences, temporarily reducing your overall carb intake to less than 30 grams a day and maintaining that level of carb intake for 8 weeks or longer, has shown promise for repairing insulin sensitivity and increasing carbohydrate tolerance.
How Many Carbs Should You Eat to Lose Weight?
Generally speaking, most people will do better by reducing carbohydrate intake, but it doesn’t mean a low-carb diet is necessary. Rather, a controlled-carbohydrate diet seems to work best.
To calculate the right amount of carbs for your specific goal, start by adding the number in parentheses to the number of hours per week you work out intensely.
Fat Loss: 0.8 + 0.1 per hour of intense exercise performed per week x body weight
Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: 1.0 + 0.1 per hour of intense exercise performed per week x body weight
Gaining Lean Mass: 1.2 + 0.1 per hour of intense exercise performed per week x body weight
*Let’s use an example of a 200-pound individual who exercises intensely for 4 hours per week as an example.
Fat Loss: (0.8 + 0.4) = 1.2 x 200 = 240 grams of carbohydrates
Weight Maintenance/Body Recomposition: (1.0 + 0.4) = 1.4 x 200 = 280 grams of carbohydrates
Gaining Lean Mass: (1.2 + 0.4) = 1.6 x 200 = 320 grams of carbohydrates
In other words, your carbohydrate intake should be proportionate to activity levels and inversely proportionate to body fat levels.
What’s the Bottom Line for Consuming Carbs for a Flat Belly?
As you should be able to see by now, carbohydrates are not created equal, and you don’t need to eliminate all carbohydrates to achieve your health and body composition goals.
The best carbs for a flat belly are those that are unprocessed and slow digesting. These sources of carbohydrates are highest in micronutrients and fiber, enhance satiety, help manage blood sugar and insulin levels, improve health markers, increase energy levels, and optimize body composition.
Even so, it’s a good idea to add protein to meals containing these carbohydrates. Protein boosts the metabolism and increases satiety. What’s more, consuming protein with carbohydrates slows gastric emptying, which in turn reduces the speed at which sugar is released into the bloodstream. Not only that, protein consumption causes the release of the hormone glucagon, a fat-fighting hormone well known for its ability to counteract the effects of insulin.