When it comes to carbohydrates, there are a lot of opinions floating around – and they’re not all accurate. Let’s set the record straight so you can make wise choices that keep your health goals on track.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (along with protein and fat) needed to sustain life, and they’re found in vegetables, fruits, grains, and many dairy products. Carbs give us the fuel we need to function and maintain energy by breaking down into sugars that are absorbed into the blood stream. When that happens, the pancreas produces insulin, a hormone that moves sugar from the blood stream into cells to be used for energy.
Many people believe that carbs are bad for you – that eating them leads to weight gain and other health problems. Some popular diets, such as keto, are based on cutting out all carbs, and others, including intermittent fasting and juicing, recommend significant elimination of carbs. However, cutting carbs out of your diet is not a sustainable path to health. “You need carbs and the nutrients that are in them for optimal function,” says Sodexo’s Regional Dietitian and Wellness Manager Cristina Caro, RDN. “Your brain runs on the glucose that comes from carbs. Without it, you can’t think,” she says. The FDA and scienced-based analysis say your body needs 130-135g of carbs every day just for proper brain function, and you should try for 150g.
For weight maintenance, it’s recommended that 45-60% of the calories you consume should come from carbs. If you’re highly active, aim for the higher range. If you’re sedentary or trying to lose weight, the lower end is best.
You’ve probably noticed that it can be more difficult to lose weight when you consume carbs. That’s because we often don’t distinguish between the two different types, simple and complex.
Is it white? Has it been refined? Then it’s probably a simple carb—a food that has had fiber removed or has been refined through other processes. Simple carbohydrates digest easily and can offer a quick burst of energy that also leads to a faster rise in blood sugar and insulin secretion. These are temporary conditions that can, over the long haul, lead to insulin resistance and even diabetes. Simple carbs are often those we eat most often – white bread, regular pasta, white rice, desserts, and sugary drinks. “Simple carbs cause swings in blood sugar,” Caro says, “which turns on your appetite and leads to overeating, because you crave more food.”
On the other hand, complex carbs are rich in fiber and micronutrients and are vital for keeping our bodies nourished and healthy. Fiber-rich complex carbohydrates such as those in whole grain breads, fruit, starchy vegetables (potatoes, squash, yams, and corn), legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) and seeds and nuts all take longer to digest, helping you avoid the dip in energy that accompanies a simple carb. The fiber in these foods will also keep you feeling fuller and help you feel more satisfied, so you’re less likely to fall into the habit of diving into the nearest simple carb when ravenously hungry.
Experts suggest that three quarters of your plate at any meal should be filled with complex carbohydrates, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. “When the changes you make in your eating habits can be sustained,” Caro says, “The changes to your health can be permanent too.”