What Are Carbs and How Much Do You Need in Your Diet?
We know: it’s confusing. One person says you should follow a low-carb diet. Another person says you absolutely need to consume a lot of carbs as part of a healthy diet. And what are carbs, anyway? Aren’t vegetables and donuts carbs? How is that possible? Read on to learn everything you should know about carbs.
What Are Carbs?
Along with fat and protein, carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients found in the foods we eat.
Carbs are molecules made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which we know as sugars, starches, and fiber says Paige Benté, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D. Though we might casually classify a certain food as a “carb,” most foods contain two, if not all three, of the macronutrients in varying amounts.
What Are Good Carbs to Eat?
If you want to skip more science, here are a few handy alphabetized lists of healthy carbs. (And then, more science!)
Artichokes, asparagus, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, collard greens, cucumbers, eggplant, jicama, kale, lettuce (not iceberg), mushrooms, okra, onions, peppers, radishes, spinach, sprouts, squash (summer), string beans, tomatoes
Apricots, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupe, grapefruit, honeydew melon, kiwifruit, nectarine, raspberries, salsa (pico de gallo), strawberries, tangerine, tomato sauce (plain, no sugar added), watermelon
Brown rice, couscous (whole wheat), corn on the cob, edamame, English muffin (whole grain), lentils, oatmeal (steel-cut or rolled), pancakes (whole grain), pasta (whole grain), peas, pita bread (whole grain), quinoa, refried beans (nonfat), sweet potato, wild rice
How Many Carbs Do You Need in Your Diet?
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates comprise 45 to 65 percent of our daily calorie intake.
For reference, carbohydrates contain four calories per gram, so if you eat 1,500 calories a day, that would be about 169 to 244 grams of carbs. The current recommended intake of carbohydrates is at least 130 grams per day, which is the minimum amount necessary to feed the brain.
“Many nutrition plans fall somewhere around 40 percent of calories from carbohydrates,” says Benté, “but somebody that’s following a strict low-carb diet wouldn’t consider 40 percent low carb. There’s a lot of gray area.”
What Are Complex Carbs?
Not all carbs are created equal. There are two basic groups — complex and simple — and the difference between them is the structure of their molecules.
Complex carbs are really just larger molecules referred to as polysaccharides or oligosaccharides. Think starches and fibers, like the whole grain bread in your sandwich or the brown rice next to your chicken at dinner.
Complex carbs can be refined — think white bread, white rice, and pasta — which means they have been processed in a way that removes most of their fiber and nutrients. So you generally want to focus on incorporating complex carbs of the more natural, unrefined variety.
In contrast, simple carbs are sugars, or saccharides, says Benté. “They typically spike your blood sugar more quickly because they are very rapidly digested and taken up into the bloodstream,” she says. Think: the fructose in a piece of fruit, or the lactose in a glass of milk. These naturally occurring sugars aren’t the enemy.
Simple carbs can also be present in refined and processed foods as added sugars — meaning they do not occur naturally but are added to the food or beverage — as in regular sodas, fruit-flavored drinks, and energy drinks, as well as pastries and donuts. These, you generally want to avoid.
But all simple carbs, even added sugars, can have their place in a healthy balanced diet.
“It’s very important that athletes have very quickly digestible sources of carbohydrates, and those are frequently highly refined carbs or simple sugars,” says Benté. This is why, she says, you see athletes downing goos and gummy bears before, during, or after a race — they’re full of simple sugars that muscles can rapidly convert into energy.
Sadly, though, when you’re at dinner, not mid-marathon, you probably shouldn’t have gummy bears on your plate.