Do you know how many carbs you eat in a day?
Before you answer, here is a brief refresher: All foods are composed of 3 macro-nutrients – protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Their intake is measured in grams. Each gram of protein or carbohydrate is equal to 4 calories. Each gram of fat is equal to 9 calories.
Back to real life: Most people consume about half of their daily calories from carbs. For a 2000 calorie diet, that works to 1000 calories, equal to 250 grams of carbs per day.
Is this good or bad?
The USDA recommends that 45-65% of our daily calorie intake should be from carbs, so half is well within that range. Does this seem counter intuitive to you? Were you expecting a recommendation for a much lower daily carb count?
Before we address this perceived gap, let’s understand what carbs are.
What you need to know:
Carbs are scientifically classified into 4 groups based on the length of their molecule chains:
- monosaccharides – is a single molecule. The most famous is glucose, a basic energy source for cells in our body.
- disaccharides – such as table sugar, made of two molecules
- oligosaccharides – 3-10 molecules long
- polysaccharides – anything longer. These include starches and fibers.
From a nutrition perspective, a much easier way to classify carbs is:
- Good carbs
- Bad carbs
All carbs eventually break down into glucose for our body to use. The distinction between good and bad carbs is based on how fast the carb turns into glucose and spikes our bloodstream. Those blood glucose spikes are unhealthy. They lead to a brief “sugar high” and then a prolonged low, which increase hunger.
So what are examples of good carbs?
You probably know the answer – good carbs are found in fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
And bad carbs?
Bad carbs can be found in soft drinks, white breads, cookies, and most highly processed foods. A can of soda has 40 grams of carbs!
Where does fiber fit into this story?
Dietary fiber is a type of long chain carbohydrate (polysaccharide). When it is present in a food, it takes the body longer to turn that food into glucose. Fiber is found in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. It is indigestible. Most Americans consume less than half of the daily recommended fiber.
Why do people go on low carb diets?
When people go on “low carb” diets, they stop eating mostly bad carbs. As a result, they begin to feel better and improve on major markers such as weight, blood glucose, etc… This has spawned an entire industry of fad diets (Atkins, South Beach, etc…)
Keep in mind, our bodies use glucose as an energy source for muscles, the nervous system, and the brain. While muscles can store glucose for future use, the brain need a constant supply in order to function properly. Some is stored in the liver (as glycogen), but without continual replenishment, we run out of glucose within a day or two. In some cases fat or protein can be converted into glucose, but not as effectively as conversion from carbs.
In fact, if the body gets no carbs, it starts to break down fats in order to produce glucose for the brain. While this may sound like a good idea, a side effect is the formation of ketone bodies?
Ketone bodies are a by-product of fat breakdown, that can cause ketosis – a condition that messes with your body. Ketosis causes headaches, mental slowdown, dizziness and interestingly a fruity acidic breath. A prolonged state of ketosis may cause serious health issues.
OK, I’ll get some carbs, but what if I eat too many?
Excess carbs will be stored as fat in the body.
So how many carbs should I consume per day?
Unfortunately, there is no consensus on this. While the USDA recommends a range of 200-300 grams a day, many nutrition experts think this is too high because typically people will eat mostly refined carbs. That’s why you’ll see recommendations of 125-150 grams of carbohydrate from many pros.
At the end of the day, you’ll need to find what carb proportion works for you. Consult a registered dietitian for more specific advice.
One piece of advice we can provide – learn to read the nutrition label on products and look for products that have a high fiber count. A good rule of thumb is a ration of 6:1 or better – 6 grams of total carb to every 1 gram of fiber. For example, a whole grain bread with 15 grams of carbs and 3 grams of fiber has a 5:1, which is good.