This week is ALL ABOUT CARBS. Everyone loves carbs but even still, they tend to get a bad rap. Are they good? Are they bad? My goal with this post is to give you a better understanding into what carbs are and how your body uses them, when you should be eating carbs and how many you should be eating, and the difference between good carbs and bad carbs, with some examples of each.
I will also note a little disclaimer with this post and future nutrition-based posts: I am not a nutritionist, registered dietician, or a doctor. All of my information comes from personal experience, my soon-to-be husband who is a soon-to-be doctor, and reading a lot of different books and internet articles.
WHAT ARE CARBOHYDRATES & HOW DOES YOUR BODY USE THEM?
First of all, carbohydrates are not an essential nutrient to humans; there are essential proteins (amino acids) and essential fats (omega-3s), but there are no essential carbohydrates. If you never eat a carbohydrate ever again, you would survive. I know that sounds absolutely terrible. Nobody (including myself) would ever do that, so don’t worry. I’m not going to tell you to stop eating carbs. But just know that the body can run off of energy only from protein and fat sources, however that’s not ideal. Carbohydrates are the only source of dietary fiber and many provide rich nutrients that come from eating plants, known as phytonutrients.
We already know carbohydrates sit at the macro table, alongside protein and fat. When you think of carbs, you should think of energy because that’s precisely what they’re used for. When you eat carbs, they are broken down by the body into glucose, which is then used for energy; what isn’t used as energy is then stored as fat. Simple as that.
It starts to get complicated when you break down the types of carbs. But simply put, there are ‘good’ carbs and ‘bad’ carbs. The major difference between the two is in how your body metabolizes them and uses them for energy; in other words, how they nourish you and fuel you.
GOOD CARBS VS. BAD CARBS
In general, healthy ‘good’ carbs have a low-glycemic load/index and provide your body with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They don’t raise your blood sugar too high or too quickly. Simply put, ‘good’ carbs keep your blood sugar fairly neutral while still providing a large dose of nutrients. Bad carbs are merely the opposite.
GLYCEMIC LOAD + GLYCEMIC INDEX
You may have heard the terms glycemic load or glycemic index somewhere along the way. Both of these are measures which can help determine if a food is a ‘good’ carb or a ‘bad’ carb. Glycemic index is a measure of how quickly glucose is absorbed - a.k.a how fast the sugar from the carb source hits your bloodstream. Similarly, glycemic load is a measure of the total absorbable glucose in foods.
A food with a low glycemic load/index is associated with ‘good’ carbs, because it doesn’t cause your blood sugar to spike; it may also be referenced as slow-burning. Whereas a food with a high glycemic load/index is often associated with ‘bad’ carbs, because it can cause a large spike in your blood sugar, meaning it’s fast-burning. These measures are important to consider when it comes to choosing your source(s) of carbohydrates in your meals.
In general, you want to eat foods and create meals that help maintain a fairly neutral blood sugar. If you do eat food that is higher in glycemic load, such as high-sugar fruits (grapes, pineapple) or starchy vegetables (potatoes, winter squash, beets), you can keep the overall glycemic load of the meal low by pairing those quick-burning carbs with slow-burning carbs. And be sure to include protein and fat to reduce the overall glycemic load, too.
WHEN TO EAT CARBS & HOW MUCH TO EAT
Just like with protein, the amount of carbohydrates you ‘should’ be eating per day depends largely on your goals and your amount of physical activity. If you are sedentary, your body doesn’t need nearly as many carbs as someone who is very active, like a competitive athlete.
Again, since energy from carbs isn’t essential, it’s hard to really pinpoint an exact amount you ‘should’ be eating per day. In general, for a healthy, active individual 30-40% of your daily calories from carbs is a good guideline.
Remember that every 1 gram of carbs = 4 calories. So, if you are eating a 2000 calorie per day diet, you would consume around 150 grams of carbs (30%).
Total calories x .30 = cal. from carbs / 4 = grams of carbs per day
In regards to when you should be eating carbs, that also depends on your goals and your lifestyle in relation to physical activity. In general, for someone who is mostly sedentary, I recommend eating a balanced amount of carbs throughout the day. Using the example above, if you eat 3 meals a day, you would eat about 50 grams of carbs at each meal.
If you are more active, I recommend timing your carbs around the time of day that you do the most physical activity. For example, if you workout in the mornings, you would want your breakfast to contain the most carbs of all your meals that day in order to replenish your body post-workout. This can be a deep topic, so I’ll save the science for another post, but in general, focus on fueling right before and immediately after your workouts with the majority of your daily carb intake.
SO, WHAT CARBS SHOULD YOU EAT?
More important than how much or when to eat, the type of carbs you’re eating is where your focus should be. Looking back at our ‘good’ carbs and ‘bad’ carbs, you’ve probably figured out that you should be creating meals including ‘good’ carbs and trying with all your might as good as they may taste to avoid the ‘bad’ carbs.
Here’s a list of ‘good’ carb sources to include in your diet:
VEGETABLES | vegetables are carbs! So if you love carbs you must love vegetables, right? If not, you should learn to because the nutrients you get from these good carbs is exactly what your body craves. Those phytonutrients I talked about earlier come from vegetables and these are the kind of carbs you can’t eat enough of. A lot of important dietary fiber also comes from plant sources. So, this is your free pass to eat as many carbs as you like, as long as it is a low-glycemic veggie. Think mostly leafy greens and other green veggies: broccoli, asparagus, kale, spinach, chard, cabbage, etc.
STARCHY VEGETABLES | veggies such as winter squashes, potatoes, corn and other root vegetables tend to raise blood sugar more quickly. They are still considered good carbs, but should be eaten in limited amounts and paired with foods that reduce the overall glycemic load of the meal. When it comes to eating your veggies, these starchy vegetables shouldn’t be the only ones on your plate.
FRUIT | fruits are also carbs. Fruit can be a little trickier than veggies because some fruits are naturally high in sugar, making them higher glycemic foods. In general, fruit should be eaten in moderation (1-2 pieces per day); dark berries, stone fruit (plums, peaches, nectarines), and apples and pears are best. Melons, grapes, and pineapple tend to be much higher in sugar and should be treated similarly to starchy veggies.
WHOLE GRAINS | unprocessed high fiber whole grains such as brown, black, or red rice, quinoa, and buckwheat are all good gluten free options. These kinds of carbs are considered ‘good’ carbs but should be eaten in moderation.
LEGUMES | Lentils, chickpeas, split peas, soy beans (edamame), and other kinds of beans are rich in fiber and other phytonutrients; they also have a low glycemic load and help slow the release of sugars into the bloodstream.
AND WHAT CARBS SHOULD YOU AVOID?
Let’s talk about bad carbs for a minute. When you think about bad carbs, highly processed foods should be the first thing that comes to mind. Basically anything in a package, otherwise known as refined carbohydrates. Refined carbs are those where the whole grain has been removed. In other words, ‘bad’ (refined) carbs are lower in nutrients and fiber and higher in sugar. So, not only do they break down more rapidly into glucose and enter your bloodstream faster, this in turn means they send your blood sugar soaring.
Some examples of bad carbs - this list could go on forever, but in general, here are some guidelines of things to avoid:
the majority of packaged and processed foods
anything made with white flour (white bread, white rice, white pasta)
cereals, pastries, and other sweets
most anything high in sugar or anything that has added sugar (stay tuned for a future post ALL ABOUT SUGAR!)
- Carbs = glucose = energy
- Focus on eating healthy, 'good' carbs that are nutrient-rich, low-glycemic and slow-burning
- If you do eat carbs with a higher glycemic load, be sure to pair them with protein, fat and or other lower glycemic carbs.
- In general, 30-40% of your overall daily calories should come from ('good') carbs.
- If you are active, your post-workout meal should contain the most carbs of all of your meals.
- Avoid 'bad' carbs as much as possible --> processed, refined, sugar = no
So, there you have it, a closer look at carbs, the role they play in fueling your body and which ones to eat and which ones to avoid. Like I mentioned during the post, there are a few future posts I will be doing on topics I brought up during this post, but if you have any specific comments or questions that came up for you while reading this post, please let me know in the comments below or feel free to shoot me an email.