Who wouldn’t want to get toned and feel stronger? There’s nothing like feeling confident in the skin you’re in. When your belly isn’t bloated and your body feels toned and lean, there sure is a confidence boost that comes along with it. And while there are many different tricks that can help you get toned—from exercises to healthy eating habits—there’s one eating trick, in particular, to keep in mind if you want to keep your body lean, and that’s to prioritize healthy carbs.
Carbs—really? While you may have heard differently because of popular low-carb diets like keto, the truth is, carbs are an essential part of your everyday diet. When you consume carbohydrates, your body converts it into glucose and either uses it for energy immediately or stores it for later once you’ve consumed a sufficient amount. Nevertheless, the types of carbs you consume do matter in terms of blood sugar levels, hormone balance, and ultimately, keeping your lean.
Why healthy carbs are important for a lean body
Prioritizing “healthier” carbs would mean eating more complex carbohydrates in your diet. These types of carbohydrates are higher in fiber (a natural nutrient that aids digestion, lowers cholesterol, assists with weight management, and keeps blood sugar levels steadier) and lower in sugar. They are known as “complex” because the more complex molecules that bind them slow down glucose in the bloodstream thanks to the fiber content. This won’t result in a blood sugar spike and, as a result, a smaller hormone spike of insulin released into the body.
Higher blood sugar spikes will come from foods that don’t have as much fiber, also known as “simple” carbs for having simpler molecules. They don’t require much to digest, so they move through your system quickly and cause your blood sugar to spike, releasing a high amount of insulin into your body and creating a hormonal imbalance.
“Stubborn belly fat is primarily attributed to an imbalance in hormones,” says Dr. Honnie Spencer, a board-certified Family Physician with Dvash Holistic Health. “You can divide hormones into two categories: fat-storing and fat burning. Typical fat-storing hormones are estrogen, insulin, and cortisol, whereas typical fat-burning hormones are glucagon, testosterone, and thyroid hormones.”
With high amounts of insulin, your body will take that blood glucose and store it either as glycogen in the muscles or fat in the body.
The types of carbs to consistently add to your diet
According to Dr. Spencer, foods that are highly processed remove those natural nutrients—like fiber and vitamins—and are a lot more readily available in grocery stores than you think. These types of foods include white bread, pastries, cereal, white rice, sodas, cakes, and high-sugar treats.
“[A] helpful tip when choosing your next meal—read the labels! Sugar can sneak in items that you don’t consider sweet,” says Dr. Spencer. “For example, ketchup has four grams of sugar per tablespoon, the same as a doughnut.”
While having these types of foods once-in-a-blue-moon won’t completely undo your efforts for a leaner physique, it’s important to prioritize healthier carbs on a consistent basis. Dr. Spencer says incorporating healthier carbs into your diet can be a naturally easy way to reduce belly fat and get lean.
“Eat healthy carbs such as fruits and vegetables that are high in fiber and lower in sugar like kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries,” says Dr. Spencer. “These are some of the foods that help to naturally reduce your fat-storing hormones. I always tell my patients that ‘fresh fruits are man’s natural dessert.'”
Other great forms of complex carbohydrates include whole grains (whole wheat bread, barley, oats, brown rice) and legumes (lentils and beans). Cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage) and root vegetables (carrots, potatoes) are vegetables that are known to be particularly high in fiber, and are great additions to your meal plan. For even more suggestions, check out our list of The 9 Best Complex Carbs for Weight Loss.
Keeping your diet well-rounded also helps with getting lean.
Another way to keep your blood sugar levels stable and to feel satiated after a meal is to incorporate the other two important macronutrients into your meals—protein and fat. Similar to carbs, there are healthier versions of each of these two other macronutrients that Dr. Spencer recommends incorporating into your diet to keep your body lean.
“Fill up on lean protein such as fatty fish like salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel,” says Dr. Spencer. “You can even add flax or chia seeds to your morning smoothie for a protein boost.”
For fats, “healthy fatty foods such as avocados, nuts, and olive oil are a great way to stimulate your fat-burning hormones and ultimately get rid of stubborn belly fat off,” she says.
Lastly, Dr. Spencer also says that in order to keep your hormones balanced and your body as lean as it can be, you should also be careful with the amount of caffeine you consume—and the times you choose to consume it.
“Limit caffeine near bedtime as it can disturb your sleep cycle and ultimately causes elevated cortisol levels, one of the hormones responsible for belly fat,” says Dr. Spencer.
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