I feel bad for carbohydrates (aka carbs) – they have become the scapegoat of all our problems – weight gain, bloating, diabetes, inflammation, and more. Carbs are the villain du jour, much like fat was in the 90’s, and their bad rap is making people remove carbs from their diet.
You might be thinking: Don’t some people eat too many carbs? Shouldn’t they try to eat less carbs? Absolutely! But I also see clients every day who are not eating enough carbohydrates.
Not getting enough carbohydrates in your diet can cause:
Carbohydrates have a rightful place in a healthy diet, but many people are unsure about why we need them, which carbohydrate foods to choose, and how much to eat. Let’s clear up the carb confusion.
- low energy levels and fatigue
- poor exercise endurance and recovery
- less resiliency to stress
- difficulty focusing
- feeling unsatisfied after meals
- feelings of deprivation (can lead to overeating & bingeing)
What are carbohydrates?
Everything we eat is made up of three macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. All three of the macronutrients are essential for our body to function properly.
There are three main types of carbohydrates:
Sugars – also known as simple carbohydrates. Sugars are often added to foods, but they also occur naturally. For example, fructose is the sugar in fruit, and lactose is the sugar in milk. So, not all sugars are “bad!”
Starch – also known as complex carbohydrate. Starch is found naturally in beans, grains (such as rice, wheat, & oats), and starchy vegetables (such as potatoes, corn, & peas).
Fiber – also a complex carbohydrate. We are not able to digest most fiber, so it is not a good source of energy, but does have other health benefits (see next section). Fiber is found in plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans.
Why do we need carbohydrates?
All carbohydrates are broken down into the same end product – glucose. Glucose is used by every cell in the body for energy.
We need carbohydrates because:
1. Carbohydrates are the main source of fuel for the entire body, and are especially important for our brain and muscles.
Carbs are the preferred source of fuel for the brain. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to deprive my brain of its preferred source of fuel!
2. Eating enough carbohydrate allows protein to be used to build and repair muscles and maintain our immune system. Allowing protein to do these jobs, instead of being broken down for energy, is known as the protein-sparing effect of carbohydrate.
Our bodies don’t really store protein. If your body needs to use protein to make glucose, it has to break down your muscle tissue.
3. Carbohydrates help maintain blood sugar levels.
If you have diabetes, it is important to eat consistent amounts of carbohydrate throughout the day. Eating too much carbohydrate can lead to hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) and not eating enough may lead to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
4. Carbohydrates provide fiber which plays a role in regulating blood sugar, maintains a healthy digestive system, and helps lower cholesterol. Fiber also slows down digestion and makes you feel full, which can aid in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
What foods have carbohydrates?
- Grain foods (such as rice, pasta, oats, bread, cereal)
- Starchy vegetables (such as corn, beans, potatoes, peas)
- Non-starchy veggies (have a small amount of carbohydrate)
- Sugars & sweeteners (such as maple syrup, molasses, agave, table sugar, brown sugar)
- Candy & desserts
How much carbohydrate do we need?
About ½ to 2/3 of your daily calories should come from a variety of carbohydrate foods (grains, fruit, vegetables, dairy). The amount of carbohydrate that is right for you depends on several factors including your age, activity level, and any medical conditions you may have. Athletes have higher carbohydrate needs and should strive for the upper end of the recommended range to perform at their best.
- Choose mostly high fiber starches and whole grains rather than refined, overly processed foods. Good choices include: quinoa, brown rice, oats, whole wheat bread and pasta, whole grain cereals, beans, and sweet potatoes.
- Try to include a fruit, vegetable, or both at every meal.
- Aim to consume a mostly healthy diet, but don’t try to be “perfect.” All foods can fit into a healthy plan– including sweets and desserts.
- If you are following a low carb diet, ask yourself: Is the way that I am eating enjoyable? Is it sustainable? How does it make me feel mentally and physically?
- If carbs have become a fear food for you, remind yourself that we need carbohydrates – they have many important functions in our body.
Q: How do I pick a healthy cereal? MK
A: Finding a healthy cereal among the dizzying array of choices in the cereal aisle can be overwhelming. Here are a few simple tips to help:
1. Ignore any health claims on the front of the box, and head straight for the Nutrition Facts panel.
2. Check the ingredients list. Good choices have either a “whole” grain (such as whole wheat or oats) or “bran” listed as the first ingredient.
3. Choose cereals with at least 3 grams of fiber for every 100 calories.
4. Good choices have 10 grams or less of sugar per serving (this does not apply to cereal with added fruit, like raisin bran).
5. If you are watching your sodium intake, check the milligrams of sodium on the label:
- Cereals with less than 140 mg per serving are considered low sodium and are good choices.
-Try to avoid cereals with more than 300 mg of sodium per serving.
Many cereals meet these guidelines. Here are a few easy to find brands to get you started:
- Barbara’s Multigrain Spoonfuls & Cinnamon or Multigrain Puffins
- Cascadian Farms Honey Nut O’s & Purely O’s
- Uncle Sam Original & Raisin Bran
- Cheerios Original & Multi Grain
- Kashi Autumn Wheat & Heart to Heart
- Post Bran Flakes
For a quick, healthy, well-balanced breakfast, add fresh fruit and low fat yogurt or milk (skim, 1%, or soymilk are best) to the high fiber cereal of your choice. Enjoy!
Do you have a burning nutrition question? Email your question to: firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered in the next newsletter!