Carbohydrates 101: The benefits of carbohydrates
Though there are many benefits of carbohydrates, you need to make sure you're eating them in moderation. A carbohydrate-intensive diet can cause high blood sugar and unwanted weight gain. But it's important that you eat an appropriate amount of healthy carbohydrates in order to meet your body's nutritional needs and maintain a healthy weight.
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients - along with proteins and fats - that your body requires daily. There are three main types of carbohydrates: starches, fiber, and sugars. Starches are often referred to as complex carbohydrates. They are found in grains legumes and starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn. Sugars are known as simple carbohydrates. There are natural sugars in vegetables, fruits, milk, and honey. Added sugars are found in processed foods, syrups, sugary drinks, and sweets.
Why do you need carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are your body's main source of energy: They help fuel your brain, kidneys, heart muscles, and central nervous system. For instance, fiber is a carbohydrate that aids in digestion, helps you feel full, and keeps blood cholesterol levels in check. Your body can store extra carbohydrates in your muscles and liver for use when you're not getting enough carbohydrates in your diet. A carbohydrate-deficient diet may cause headaches, fatigue, weakness, difficulty concentrating, nausea, constipation, bad breath and vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
What are some healthy sources of carbohydrates?
To reap the benefits of carbohydrates, you should choose carbohydrates loaded with nutrients. Christie Ferriell, a registered dietitian and nutrition manager at Reid Health, recommends you get at least half of your carbohydrates from whole grains. Ferriell notes that "whole grains provide fiber that helps you feel full and satisfied with smaller portions." Ferriell recommends you try making quinoa pilaf with tofu and vegetables a heart-healthy recipe containing fiber- and protein-rich quinoa from Reid's I Heart Cooking program.
Healthy carbohydrate-rich foods (containing 12 grams of carbohydrates or more per serving) include
- Whole grains: quinoa, amaranth, barley, brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain pasta and whole-grain breakfast cereals
- Fruits: berries, citrus fruits, melons, apples, pears, bananas and kiwifruit
- Starchy vegetables: sweet potatoes, yams, corn. peas and carrots
- Legumes: lentils, black beans, pinto beans, navy beans, chick peas and soybeans
- Milk products: low-fat milk, plain yogurt and soy yogurt
Healthy foods lower in carbohydrates (less than 10 grams per serving) include
- Nonstarchy vegetables: leafy greens, spinach, cabbage, asparagus, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini and mushrooms
- Nuts and seeds: pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios
- Soy milk and tofu
How many grams of carbohydrates do you need?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 suggest that most adults get 45 to 65 percent of their calories from carbohydrates. Since carbohydrates contain four calories per gram, you should consume 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates on a daily basis if you're following a 2000-calorie diet.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture you should consume at the very least the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of carbohydrates which is 130 grams for adults 175 grams for women who are pregnant and 210 grams for women who are breastfeeding. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, women should consume 25 grams of fiber daily , while men should consume 38 grams of fiber daily.
What if I have diabetes?
If you have diabetes, you should see a doctor or dietitian who can help you plan meals to control your blood sugar. Though your daily carbohydrate requirements are the same as those for someone without diabetes, it's important to avoid eating too many carbohydrates in one sitting. The American Diabetes Association suggests you should limit your intake to about 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates at each meal.
The bottom line
You should avoid added sugar, processed foods, refined grains (like white bread), sodas, other sugary drinks, and sweets as much as possible. To help you look and feel your best, you should choose nutrient-dense healthy carbohydrates.