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Swap it, don’t stop it: the best carbs for healthy hearts



Swap it, don’t stop it: the best carbs for healthy hearts

Blog: 27 February, 2023

When you think of carbohydrate foods, you probably jump straight to bread, rice and pasta. Don’t worry, most people do. However, carbohydrates are also found in many heart-healthy foods, including wholegrain bread, rice and pasta, but not all carbs are created equal.

At  the Heart Foundation, we promote a Heart Healthy Eating Pattern. It’s based on eating a combination of foods over time and the evidence suggests that improving your entire eating pattern, not simply changing one nutrient or food, is best for heart health.

So why are carbs important?

Carbohydrates play an important role in the body. They are the best source of energy to fuel the brain and muscles and are important for managing your blood sugar (glucose) levels, as well as cholesterol and fat metabolism.

We recommend eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains and legumes such as beans and lentils. These healthy carb-containing foods are minimally processed and great for your heart.

For example, the fibre, potassium and other vitamins and nutrients in fruits and vegetables can help lower your risk of high blood pressure and cholesterol, even helping to protect you from heart disease.

We also know there is a strong link between eating wholegrains and lowering your chance of developing heart disease. Things like rolled oats, barley and legumes are rich in soluble fibre, which helps to lower cholesterol.

SWAP: Try wholegrain brown rice, brown pasta or quinoa instead of white rice or pasta. Give our delicious wholemeal one pot green goodness pasta a go.

Dairy contains quality carbs

In the same way fructose is a naturally occurring sugar in fruit, lactose is a naturally occurring sugar found in dairy foods. This helps to explain why dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese contain different amounts of carbohydrates.

Evidence suggests that eating dairy foods neither increases nor decreases your risk of heart disease, which is great news as dairy foods contain calcium, protein, vitamins A and B12, magnesium, phosphorous, riboflavin and zinc (spoiler alert: these are all good for you). It’s even been suggested that dairy foods may protect against high blood pressure, stroke andtype 2 diabetes.

Unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese can be part of a heart-healthy eating pattern, but for people with high cholesterol, we recommend choosing reduced fat products.

SWAP: For sweet cravings, enjoy fresh fruit and plain Greek yoghurt instead of cake or ice cream. Or try our grab and go overnight oats instead of a café banana bread.

What about carbs in processed foods, or foods with added sugar?

This is where it gets tricky. While we’ve just talked about the many potential benefits of (good) whole food carbohydrates, many processed or packaged foods contain large amounts of added sugars.

If you’re reading this you likely already know that treats such as lollies, cakes, biscuits, sweets, and desserts are not recommended as part of a heart-healthy diet. When foods high in added sugars are eaten regularly or in large amounts, you may increase your risk of gaining weight, and being overweight or obese increases the chance of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Soft drinks, cordials, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and iced teas also often contain added sugars, and these sugary drinks that are high in kilojoules offer little nutritional value. Sugary drinks are also not recommended as part of heart-healthy eating pattern.

SWAP: Choose still or sparkling water, unflavoured milk, tea and coffee, and ditch sugary drinks like soft drinks, cordial and energy drinks. See ‘The best and worst drinks for heart health’.

What if I have diabetes and heart disease?

If you’re living with diabetes, you may want to modify the amount of carbohydrates you eat based on the advice of a healthcare professional.

For individualised advice, see your doctor or an Accredited Practising Dietitian.You can also visit Diabetes Australia.

What are we doing about it?

At the Heart Foundation, we want to make it easy for all Australians to make healthier food and drink choices. We know that where you live can impact on the types of food available to you. We regularly work with the government and other organisations on changes we want to see to Australia’s food and drink supply. Here's what we want to see:

  • Honest food labelling and having ‘added sugar’ on the label of packaged foods.
  • All eligible products displaying the Health Star Rating on the front label of packaged foods.
  • A health levy on sugary drinks to help people drink less of them.
  • Food and drink manufacturers reducing the amount of sugar, saturated fat and salt in their products.
  • Better access to heart-healthy foods, particularly in regional and remote areas.

You may be interested in tuning into Magda’s Big National Health Check. Magda talks about food, heart disease, and how we can work together to live healthier lives.

And that’s a wrap (wholegrain, of course)!

Last updated27 February 2023