Weekly Wellness: Simple Guide to Carbs
COLUMBIA - I don't think I've ever had a nutrition talk with anyone who hasn't asked me about carbohydrates. Or referenced them as being "bad." Carbs aren’t bad – they are important and necessary. Glucose is the preferred fuel for tissues and organs, and is the ONLY source of fuel for our red blood cells. Without enough carbohydrates, the body will break down the protein in its muscles and organs to create usable glucose for these tissues and organs. If you're trying to build muscle, you definitely don't want this happening. It's a bit counterproductive, don't you think?
Carbohydrates are found in almost all foods, and they provide 4 calories for every gram. Not all carbohydrates are the same and your body will respond differently based on the type of carb you're enjoying. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.
Simple carbohydrates: They’re also known as “sugar.” This carbohydrate is made of one sugar or two sugar building blocks (glucose, fructose and galactose). Because the chains are short, they’re easy to break down, which is why they taste sweet. Simple carbohydrates include sweeteners like table sugar, syrup, and/or honey.
Complex carbohydrates: Can be either “starch” or “fiber.” This carbohydrate is made of three or more sugars connected in a chain. They use the same sugar building blocks as simple carbs, but the chains are longer and take more time to break down (which is why they don’t taste as sweet). Examples of foods high in complex carbohydrates would be bread, rice, pasta, beans, whole grains and vegetables.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates is 130 grams per day. This is the minimum amount required to fuel an adult’s brain, red blood cells and central nervous system optimally.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, carbohydrates should make up 45 to 65% of total calories in our diet—this is a good range for the average person. A good rule of thumb is to eat between 45-50% calories from carbohydrates. And if you're exercising vigorously for more than 1 hour daily (or you're training for an endurance event like a half marathon or marathon), you may want to increase that range to 55-56%.
Whether you’re looking to lose or maintain weight, or optimize performance, here are three rules of thumb* to help you choose healthy carbohydrate foods:
1. Choose whole food sources of complex carbs like vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. One-hundred percent whole-grain breads, pasta and brown rice should also be included in this rule. These foods are a source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and protein.
2. Eat less complex carbs from refined sources like white rice, white bread and traditional pasta. These foods are more processed, and have healthy nutrients stripped from them—namely fiber.
3. Enjoy simple carbohydrates in moderation. Most sources of simple carbohydrates are considered “empty calories” because they’re high in calories but contain low to no micronutrients. They’re a likely culprit when it comes to spiking blood sugar. You can consider fruit and milk an exception to this rule because both contain beneficial vitamins and minerals.
*These rules do not apply if you are highly athletic.