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Nutrition 101: Carbohydrates

By Annette Demeny

Welcome to Part 2 of the Nutrition 101 mini series! We will be diving into the often controversial macronutrient…CARBOHYDRATE.

In case you missed Part 1, click here to jump start your nutrition knowledge by learning all things CALORIES.

 

Carbohydrates (or carbs) are often thought to cause weight gain, diabetes, or are mistaken as unhealthy. The idea that “carbs are bad for you” has left many people confused about carbohydrates. But the truth is, carbs are an essential part of a healthy diet and are the body’s primary source of energy and fuel that the brain and muscles need to function. 

 

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients – along with proteins and fats – that your body requires daily. There are three main types of carbohydrates: starches, fiber and sugars. Starches are often referred to as complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates pack in more nutrients than simple carbs. They’re higher in fiber and digest more slowly. This also makes them more filling, which means they’re a good option for weight control. They are found in grains, legumes and starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn.

 

Sugars are known as simple carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are those that can be broken down quickly for energy, quickly providing your cells with energy. These almost immediately raise your blood sugar levels. There are natural sugars in vegetables, fruits, milk and honey. Added sugars are found in processed foods, syrups, sugary drinks and sweets.

 

Fiber is a type of non-digestible complex carbohydrate that helps maintain a healthy gut and immune system. Also, one study published in Annals of Internal Medicine  suggests that eating 30 grams of fiber each day can help with weight loss. You can find fiber in complex carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, potatoes, beans and peas, butternut and winter squash, and whole grains (like wheat, quinoa, barley, oats, and whole-grain products).

 

Why do you need carbohydrates?

The primary role of carbohydrates in your body is energy production. Carbohydrates provide 4 calories of energy per gram of carbohydrate, which is the same amount of energy as one gram of protein. However, in your body, carbs and protein are used differently.

 

Whether you eat a potato, a slice of bread, pasta, beans, or ice cream, any source of carbohydrates you eat is broken down to glucose (sugar). Your blood then transports this sugar to cells throughout your body. Your cells “eat” this sugar and use it for energy. This is especially important for your brain, heart, muscles and red blood cells because they use glucose as their primary source of fuel.

 

Upon digestion and absorption of carbohydrates, some glucose is stored in your liver and muscles as “glycogen.” However, your body can only store so much glycogen. Once your glycogen stores are full, your body will convert excess carbohydrates to fat. A carbohydrate-deficient diet may cause headaches, fatigue, weakness, difficulty concentrating, nausea, constipation, bad breath, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Providing your body a well-balanced amount of carbohydrates is important in avoiding over AND under supplying what’s needed for optimal health.

 

How many carbs do you need daily?

Unlike protein and fat, there is no Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) for carbohydrates. Like most nutrients, your needs vary with body size, shape, activity, and health goals.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that 45-65% of your calories come from carbohydrates, but this is an average. If you like counting grams, that would be 225 to 325 grams daily if you follow a 2000-calorie diet. If you have Diabetes, you should limit your intake to 46-60 grams of carbohydrates per meal. Instead of counting grams, I like to fill 1/2 of my plate with non-starchy vegetables and another 1/4 with complex, starchy and high fiber, carbohydrates. What types of foods should you include?

 

What are some healthy sources of carbohydrates?

To reap the benefits of carbohydrates you should choose carbohydrates that are loaded with nutrients.

Healthy carbohydrate-rich foods (containing 12 grams of carbohydrates or more per serving) include;

  • Whole grains: quinoa, amaranth, barley, brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain pasta and whole-grain breakfast cereals
  • Fruits: berries, citrus fruits, melons, apples, pears, bananas and kiwifruit
  • Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, yams, corn. peas and carrots
  • Legumes: lentils, black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, chick peas

 

Healthy foods lower in carbohydrates (less than 10 grams per serving) include

  • Nonstarchy vegetables: leafy greens, spinach, cabbage, asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini and mushrooms
  • Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios
  • Soy milk and tofu

 

Take-away ~ To look and feel your best, choose nutrient-dense healthy carbohydrates. Try to avoid added sugar, processed foods, refined grains (like white bread), sweets, sodas and other sugary drinks as much as possible. Next week, we get to know more about FATS and how they serve your overall health.

 

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Questions about carbohydrates? Let me know in the comments below…

 

 

 

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