Carbohydrates


Jul 7, 2021

 by Christina Wilson
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Carbohydrates

What they are, why we need them, and how to calculate how much YOU need. 

We have 3 macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates, and you need all three of them. Unfortunately, carbohydrates sometimes get a bad rap. But the truth is, they’re an important part of a healthy diet and have heaps of benefits. 

Around here, we’re not into labeling food as “good” or “bad.” But we will say, all carbs are definitely not created equal. 

Here’s a quick carb crib sheet to tell you what you need to know.

Simple versus complex carbs

There are three main types of carbohydrates: sugar, starch, and fiber. Sugar is the simplest form and occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, and dairy. Starch and fiber are complex carbohydrates and can be found in vegetables, whole grains, and cooked dry beans and peas. As a general rule, the more a food looks like it did before it was harvested, the more nutrients it has. Grains are better for us when eaten whole (i.e., steel-cut vs. rolled oats, brown vs. white rice, polenta vs. cornbread). Once the grain is ground into flour, its surface area increases, becoming easier to digest. This might initially sound like a good thing, but the faster we digest a portion of food, the quicker its starch is converted into sugar. Therefore, the more we have to chew a grain, the less likely it is to cause a sugar spike.

What do carbs do for us? 

Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source. For example, the human brain depends exclusively on carbohydrates for energy. In addition, complex carbohydrates carry important vitamins and minerals our bodies need to complete essential functions.  Without these carrier carbohydrates, we wouldn’t produce energy, digest our food or fight off colds and flu. Complex carbs can keep us feeling full longer, will help curb sugar spikes and cravings, and help maintain a healthy weight. Researchers also link carbs to the production of serotonin, which plays a huge role in managing control of mood, sleep, and anxiety. Serotonin is manufactured in the gut, which is why it’s so important to eat of variety of those veggie carbohydrates! Women also need an adequate amount of carbohydrates to nourish hormones, especially thyroid and adrenal hormones. 

How many carbs should I be eating? 

This varies from person to person, and we have given you macros that we feel will work best for you. That amount will probably need to be adjusted as your journey continues (pun intended). Here’s a good guideline:  1/2 of your plate should be nonstarchy vegetables (think spinach, cabbage, cauliflower, green beans, broccoli), 1/4 of your plate should be lean protein, and 1/4 of your plate should be a starchy vegetable (think beets, sweet potato, carrots)  or a whole grain (i.e., quinoa, brown rice). You should feel good, have enough energy to get through workouts, not have too many cravings, and be able to sleep soundly.  

What’s up with no-carb diets?

There’s been a lot of hype around no-carb diets. Our school of thought around here is one of moderation. The ketogenic diet has been around for many years and has been helpful for those with epilepsy and mitochondrial diseases, and is being researched for certain brain diseases. Keto should not be confused with a lower-carb way of eating. A reduction in carbs can be beneficial for people who need to carefully monitor their blood sugar levels, especially people with Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, or PCOS. 

What Are Net Carbohydrates

Net carbohydrates can be a great way to measure the impact that the food is likely to have on your blood sugar. Net carbohydrates can be calculated with this simple equation:

Total Carbs – Dietary Fiber = Net Carbs

Since fiber is not digested, net carbs are the number of carbohydrates left after the fiber is accounted for. The benefit of tracking net carbohydrate intake is that fiber does not count towards your carbohydrate intake. Unfortunately, inadequate fiber intake is all too common amongst most adults, and so I absolutely encourage you to count net carbohydrates and to prioritize a diet rich in fiber.

The chart below provides a helpful overview of net carbohydrates found in various plant-based carbohydrates.

Food Example

Total Carbs (g)

Fiber (g)

Net Carbs (g)

Avocado

9

7

2

1/2 bell pepper

5

2

3

1 cup brussels sprouts

4

2

2

1 oz cashews

9

1

8

2 tbsp almond butter

6.0

3

3

1/4 cup red lentils (uncooked)

30

15

15

1/4 cup quinoa (uncooked)

28

3

25

Glycemic Index

Researchers developed the glycemic index to measure how slowly or how quickly certain foods caused increases in blood glucose levels.

A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a low glycemic index/moderate carbohydrate diet is a more effective strategy for weight loss and improved insulin sensitivity than a traditional low fat/high glycemic index diet. The glycemic index (GI) is reported on a scale of 0-100. Foods that score above 70 are considered high glycemic, and foods below 40 are low. Foods like white bread and whole wheat bread have a glycemic index of about 75, boiled carrots have a 39, and a raw apple has a 36. 

Takeaway Points

All carbohydrates are not “bad.” Low carb diets can also be a beneficial intervention for weight loss, lower levels of insulin resistance, and improved gut microbiome health. But that still does not mean that all carbs are “bad.”

There are a lot of different ways to measure carbs, including net carbs and the glycemic index. 

Eat fewer refined, processed carbohydrates: white bread, cookies, crackers, sodas. Try not to buy them at home–out of sight often means out of mind.

Eat more whole-food carbohydrates to get more fiber and gut-friendly nutrients, especially from non-starchy vegetables. Vegetables should be your main carbohydrate. Fruit is also part of a balanced, healthful diet.  Choose fruits lower on the glycemic scale, such as berries, apples, and pears. For most people, I suggest enjoying no more 1-2 pieces of fruit a day. Think of grain portions as a condiment, whole grains have lots of health benefits, but too much can spike your blood sugar. Stick to about ¼ a cup (again, a very general suggestion).

Your carbohydrate needs are different for every individual based on physical activity, age, gender, health goals, insulin sensitivity, thyroid and adrenal health, and the gut microbiome. Your mileage may vary, and that's ok!