What You Should Know about Carbohydrates

Story by Annie Eller

Everyone seems to have an opinion on carbohydrates these days. Are they healthy? Unhealthy? Should starchy veggies be avoided? Is fruit too high in carbs? As a dietitian, these are questions I hear every day. The conflicting information can be really frustrating for those trying to improve their diet. Let’s explore the facts about carbohydrates, the role they play in the body, and what the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend. Moving forward, you can be an informed consumer and decide how carbohydrates can fit into your healthy diet.

Let’s start with the basics; what is a carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates are macronutrients, which means the body needs them in larger quantities compared to micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). There are three main types of carbohydrates – sugar, starch, and fiber. Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source, meaning the process of breaking carbs down to glucose for energy is less taxing on the body compared to breaking down fat. The calorie breakdown of carbohydrates and other macronutrients is listed below:

  • Carbohydrates = 4 calories per gram
  • Protein = 4 calories per gram
  • Fat = 9 calories per gram
  • Alcohol = 7 calories per gram

As you can see, protein and carbohydrates have the same caloric density. This might come as a surprise to some, as carbs have been demonized and are usually considered to be the cause of weight gain, which is not necessarily the case.

Role of carbohydrate in the Body

Carbohydrates provide energy so the body can function optimally (especially the brain). Carbohydrates are also the primary source of fiber in the diet, which is important for balancing blood sugar, lowering cholesterol, and regulating digestion. Unfortunately carbs are not widely acknowledged as a component of a healthy diet because many individuals have been taught to fear them. Claims that starchy foods lead to weight gain and cause diabetes are not rooted in science and do not tell the whole story. The bottom line; carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet and it’s important to recognize which sources of carbs are more nutrient dense than others (we will discuss this later).

Recommended Intake

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates make up 45-65% of the diet. For example, if someone ate 2000 calories/day, their carbohydrate goal would range from 225-325g of carbohydrates per day. Within that range, deciding how many carbs works best in your meal plan should be individualized based on preferences, health goals, etc. Additionally, choosing which carbohydrates make up 45-65% of the diet is important (hint: not all are created equally!). See below to learn how to choose more nutrient dense carbohydrates sources for your diet.

Refined Grains Versus Whole Grains

The key to choosing carbohydrates wisely is to understand the difference between refined and whole grains. The dietary guidelines recommend at least half of the carbohydrates in the diet are whole grain. Whole grain carbohydrates will have the first ingredient listed as ‘100% whole wheat flour.’ Other non-refined sources of carbohydrates are fruits, starchy vegetables, and beans. The carbohydrates we want to consume less often are ultra-processed foods such as chips, cookies, pastries, candy, ice cream, boxed dinners, etc. These foods tend to be nutrient poor and more calorically dense compared to whole grains, fruits, veggies, and beans.

Making a Balanced Plate with Carbohydrates

Another factor to consider is pairing carbohydrates with other foods to balance them out. This means that any time a carbohydrate rich food is consumed, it is helpful to pair it with a protein and/or a fat source. Always practicing this approach can help with better blood sugar control and sustained energy compared to just eating a starchy food alone. For example, instead of grabbing a handful of triscuit crackers for a snack, pairing them with a cheese stick can blunt the blood sugar spike after eating the snack and increase fullness/satiety.

Downside of Low Card Diets

Low carb diets are gaining more popularity due to their proclaimed benefits (especially for weight loss). However, is this a healthy approach to eating? There are some negative aspects to removing all or most carbohydrates from the diet. As mentioned above, using fat for energy (a process called ketosis) is much more taxing on the body compared to having adequate glucose available for energy. Another factor to consider with a low carb diet is the fact that these diets are usually high in saturated fat (because many high fat meats, cheeses, sauces, and dairy products are included). If saturated fat is consumed regularly, it can increase risk of heart disease. Additionally, a low carb diet will lack fiber because many fruits, starchy veggies, and grains are completely avoided. Inadequate fiber in the diet can lead to poor digestion, poor gut health, and can also negatively impact cholesterol levels. It’s important to remember that anytime a whole food group is removed from the diet, we miss out on the variety of vitamins and minerals. Ideally we get a wide variety of food each day so we get all of the nutrients we need for optimal health. It is hard to achieve this when we avoid a whole food group.

Carbohydrates and Chronic Disease

Individuals who have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, diabetes, or insulin resistance might assume they need to remove carbohydrates from their diet. This is not necessarily the case. The key is to know how many grams of carbohydrates should be consumed each day (hint: it should be individualized). This way carbohydrates aren’t being consumed in excess, which can exacerbate blood sugar abnormalities. Additionally, understanding which carbohydrates are more nutrient dense than others is important. With proper amounts of carbohydrates in the diet, choosing them wisely, and always balancing the plate with a protein or a fat, carbohydrates can (and should!) play a role in a diabetc diet.

Healthy Swaps for Refined Grains

With adequate education about carbohydrates, you can feel empowered to include them in your diet without guilt or confusion. Here are some simple swaps to help increase quality carbohydrates in the diet and decrease refined options.

Instead of this, try this:

Potato chips   ~   Lightly salted popcorn

Frosted flakes cereal   ~   Steel cut oats

Fruit snacks   ~   Frozen grapes

Soda   ~   Sparkling or fruit infused water

Want more info about carbohydrates and how they can fit into your diet? Work with a registered dietitian to help you understand your needs! You can find an RD by searching “dietitian near me” online or asking your care team for a referral. For more general nutrition information and healthy recipes, follow @annieellerrd on instagram or email contact@annieellerrd.com!