Carbs, also known as carbohydrates, have long been at the center of hot debates in the health and fitness world. Some low carb diets claim that they're "bad" and promote limiting carb consumption, while other diets embrace them and promote daily consumption.
It's no wonder so many people are confused about what to believe!
The truth of the matter is, carbs are not essential for survival, but you should probably be eating at least some. How many exactly, is debatable.
Keep reading to learn what are the best carbs for weight loss and ways you can estimate how many grams you need a day to get the best results.
Learn exactly how many grams of carbohydrates you need each day to support your fitness goals using this simple carb calculator.
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What Are Carbs?
So, what exactly are carbohydrates? You might have heard they are a ‘sugar’, a ‘macro’, or know them just as a label for a collection of foods like potatoes, rice, beans and legumes, etc. Let’s break it down.
Scientifically speaking, carbohydrates are saccharides that contain a mixture of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in varying quantities. In more simple terms, carbs are a group of macronutrients that supply sugar or starch to the diet. And just like other macros (protein and fat), carbohydrates provide calories – four calories per gram to be precise.
What Foods Have Carbs?
Carbohydrates are found in many foods including fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, sugars, and processed foods (1). And although carbohydrates are commonly referred to as “sugars” there is a big difference between getting carbs from processed foods with added sugar and refined grains compared to nutrient dense plant sources.
By rule of thumb, anything that grows out of the ground is going to contain some amount of carbohydrates - so essentially, all plant based foods have carbs. Carbs are also available in many dairy based options like milk.
The Different Types of Carbs
Just as the number of carbs in each food can differ, so can the type. There are three main "classes" of carbohydrates found in your diet, and each type is not always exclusive to one food or another, many foods contain a unique combination of the three. The main types of carbohydrates in food include:
Monosaccharides are the simplest form of carbohydrates. In other words, they are the most broken down already, making them a quick source of sugar in the diet. They provide a sweet taste to foods and include glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Glucose is found in natural sweeteners like honey, molasses, and agave. Fructose is the main type of sugar found in fruit and veggies. And galactose primarily comes from dairy options.
Sucrose, lactose, and maltose are disaccharides. Once eaten, these carb types must be broken down into their monosaccharide counterparts.
Lactose (glucose + galactose combined) is a sugar in milk commonly associated with dairy intolerance. Sucrose (glucose + fructose combined) comes from sugar beets and sugar cane plants, as well as some fruits. And maltose (two glucose units combined) is the least common disaccharide, coming mainly from malt products.
Polysaccharides, the most complex of carbohydrates, include starch, cellulose, and pectin.
Examples of starchy foods are corn, legumes, potatoes, and grains.
Cellulose is a type of carb that cannot be digested by the body and is commonly referred to as fiber. That's right! Fiber is a carb. And most fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contain cellulose. Pectin is also a fiber, that can be found in the skin of most fruits - and the thicker the skin, the more pectin.
Some carb types can be extracted from food and used in their singular form as an ingredient in processed foods - most commonly as added sugar.
Added Sugar vs. Natural Sugar
Added sugar is a concentrated, simple carb that is used as a single ingredient, most commonly in processed foods and recipes. This type of sugar can be extracted from carb-containing foods or found in naturally occurring sweeteners.
The trouble with added sugar is that it has been linked to numerous chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity (2). And it provides a source of empty calories to the diet. Even if the sugar is extracted from a "healthy" source, only the sugar is being used - leaving behind important nutrients like protein, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals that may also be naturally occurring in the food.
So where exactly does added sugar come from?
While there are 50 different names for added sugar on a nutrition facts label, the most common forms come from sucrose and fructose - but sugar can be created from many different types of simple carbohydrates.
Sucrose is essentially the same thing as table sugar. This is because sucrose is extracted from the heavily concentrated sugar beets and sugar cane plants to create table sugar. And fructose is the type of sugar extracted from corn to create high fructose corn syrup.
Natural sweeteners, like maple syrup, honey, and agave, can also be considered added sugar as they provide the same amount of carb grams per serving and are processed by your body in a similar fashion.
And added sugar can be different than added sweeteners. Sweeteners can also include natural non-calorie sweeteners and artificial sweeteners like sugar alcohols, stevia, and sucralose.
Are Carbs Bad for You?
Your body loves carbohydrates because they are the quickest source of energy you can get, compared to fat and protein that require more work to extract usable energy that your muscles and organs can use. And because of their role in providing an easy source of energy, carbs play an important role in performance, recovery, and building muscle (3,4). They also help regulate your mood and self-control (5). In fact, getting "hangry" is a real phenomenon - going too low carb can make you feel tired and cause brain fog.
When you eat carbs, they provide your bodies with fuel in the form of glucose – the same sugar that is released into your blood stream. As your cells absorb blood sugar for energy, levels in the bloodstream begin to fall, which in turn signals the liver to release stored sugar to ensure our bodies have a steady supply of it (6).
Your blood sugar levels are tightly monitored and only small amounts of glucose in the blood are used for energy. This is because low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, can lead to serious medical complications, including death (7). And high blood sugar, hyperglycemia, can also cause a whole host of problems. If your liver seeks glucose and there isn't any, you'll know—you may experience severe headaches, fogginess, mood swings, etc.
To supply a more steady stream of energy, carbohydrates are also stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen – this is your backup fuel! But this storage can become depleted in a couple of days if you aren't eating any carb foods or are fasting.
Glucose can also be stored as body fat to add to your long-term reserve fuels, especially when too many calories and carbs are consumed. But this doesn't mean eating high carb will make you fat! Only a small portion of glucose is stored in fat cells, and you are more likely to store dietary fat as fat over carbs. Not to mention your body is constantly breaking down fat and muscle cells for energy all day long - it is only when you store more fat than you are burning that weight gain comes into play (8,9).
Because a majority of glucose from carbs is stored in your muscles, the more lean mass you have, the more efficiently you store carbs and the less fat you store overall. Giving you another reason to build muscle and strength train.
How Many Carbs Per Day Do You Need?
The US Dietary Guidelines recommend that we get between 45 and 65 percent of our calories from carbohydrates (10). And with the recommended calorie intake anywhere from 1800-3000 calories a day, based on gender, age, and activity level, this translates into at least 200 grams or more of carbs per day (11).
For example, for an individual seeking to consume 2000 calories a day, they should aim for 900-1300 of their calorie intake to revolve around carbohydrates (2000 x .45= 900 & 2000 x .65=1300), equaling out to about 225 to 325g of carbohydrates.
But many popular low carb weight loss diets and health professionals recommend a range from 25% to 40% of your daily calories.
The thing is, your carb needs are directly related to your level of fitness, health goals, body composition, and overall diet. And everyone is a little different. If you are extremely active or an athlete, your needs may be closer to the higher end (65% of calories) compared to if you are more sedentary, working a desk job most of the day and little activity, you probably need a lower carb intake (maybe as low as 30% to 40% of your calories).
Another way to estimate your carb needs is based on your current body weight. Divide your weight in pounds by 2.2 to get your weight in kilograms. You can then multiply this amount by one of the following:
- 2.5 to 3.5g/kg for sedentary to lightly active
- 3.5 to 4.5g/kg for moderate to heavy activity
- 5 to 7.0g/kg for extremely active
For example, a 150-pound (68.18kg) adult who is sedentary needs ~170 to 238g of carbs per day (68.18kg x 2.5 to 3.5).
Using a macro friendly app, like Trifecta, is also an easy way to get your daily estimate. Plus, tracking your daily intake is a great way to capture how many grams of carbohydrates you are eating every day - helping you to stay on track with calories and carbs.
What is a "Low Carb" Diet and Do They Work?
Low carb diets are trendy because people truly believe that carbs are the devil. Most low carb diets recommend eating less than 100g of carbohydrates a day, sometimes as little as 20g.
To put that into perspective, a banana has about 27g of carbohydrates so that would be more than your total carbohydrates for the day.
So, do bananas make you fat?
Low carb diets are often used as an approach to weight loss because they help you cut calories. Carbs sneak their way into many favorite foods like snacks, desserts, and sweetened beverages. And cutting carb intake allows you to trim these “extra” options from your day and cut calories naturally. This doesn’t necessarily mean it is removing the carb sugars themselves that are causing the weight loss. In fact, calorie control is the only proven method to lose weight that we know of.
There is also some debate around whether too many carbs can affect your body composition – meaning eating too much can make you have more body fat. But the research hasn’t proven this. In fact, you are less likely to store carbohydrates as fat compared to actual fat in the diet. And most people can tolerate quite a bit of carbs (100g to 500g a day) before their stores reach capacity and fat storage kicks in (13). Plus, a good number of the carbs you eat are used for immediate fuel and organ function, not necessarily storage.
But the theory behind going low carb is not without some research to back it up (14). There are numerous studies that support low carb diets to promote faster weight loss compared to low fat diets. And there are also plenty of studies that show no difference. Including a recent, larger study by Stanford that controls for calories in both diet types and found no significant difference between either approach (15).
In the end, it might be more important to pay attention to the types of carbs you are eating than the amount.
How to Choose the Right Type of Carbs
As mentioned above, not all carbs are created equal. The difference lies in how each carb is digested and utilized by the body. Some carbs, like simple and processed versions, are absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly - which work great for pre and post-workout nutrition but not necessarily all day long. Whereas other types, like whole grains and fibrous fruits, take much longer to digest - resulting in better blood sugar control when eaten throughout the day as part of a balanced diet.
What are Good Carbs?
carbohydrates are often described as simple or complex. And the two can be distinguished using the Glycemic Index (GI scale).
The GI serves as a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels (16).
Some nutrition experts argue that you should choose your carbs based on this measurement. However, the GI does not consider how many grams of carbs are actually in a food and does not consider your diet as a whole, so the glycemic load was introduced as a stronger approach to ranking carb quality (18).
An even easier way to approach the quality of your carb intake is to just choose more whole foods that provide naturally occurring sugars. This includes just about everything that grows out of the ground and some dairy options - you know, the options without a long ingredients list, usually just the food itself.
What Are Refined Carbs?
Refined carbs come primarily from processed foods and added sugars. The classic example is whole wheat flour vs. white flour. Whole wheat flour is made by grinding the whole grain as it is found in nature. Whereas white flour is made from wheat grains whose tough outer layers have been removed (or processed) - creating a lighter fluffier flour option, but also removing a majority of the grain's nutrients and fiber. White rice vs brown rice is another grain example.
The main problem with refined carbs is their lack of nutritional value compared to their whole food counterpart. And because refined grains make up a decent portion of common foods that we eat, many processed grains are fortified with key vitamins and minerals, like B vitamins, zinc, and iron.
But realistically, all types of carbohydrates can fit into a healthy diet, as long as a balanced dietary approach including healthy fats and lean protein is used overall. It really just depends on your personal needs. And remember, no single food or meal is going to make or break your whole diet - it's the combination of all the foods you've eaten over an extended period of time.
What Does 100 grams of Good Carbs Per Day Look Like?
- 1 cup of cooked quinoa: 40g carb
- 1 apple: 25g carb
- 1/2 cup of black beans: 20 g carb
- 1/2 cup of fresh blueberries: 5g carb
- 1 cup Brussel sprouts: 10g carb
With this 100 grams of carbohydrates, you also get 3.5 to 4 cups of food, 25 grams of fiber, 200% of the daily value for vitamin C, 26% of the daily value for vitamin A, and 18% of the daily value for iron.
What Does 100 grams of Refined Carbs Per Day Look Like?
- 1 candy bar (2 oz): 71g carb
- 1 can of soda (12 oz): 37g carb
With this 108 grams of carbohydrates, you get significantly less food, only 1 to 2 grams of fiber, 0% of the daily value for vitamin C, 0% of the daily value for vitamin A, and 6% of the daily value for iron.
How to Count Carbs
You don't need to be a nutritionist to learn how to count your daily carb intake. All it takes is a little investigating and paying attention to what you're putting in your mouth.
Once you understand where carbs come from, the counting part is pretty simple. And if you're counting macros, you're counting carbs.
Here are the two easiest ways to track your carbs.
- Use a macro friendly nutrition app, like Trifecta, and track your daily food intake.
- Read the nutrition facts label. Carbs and fiber amounts are clearly listed on all packaged foods. Currently added sugar is not required to be labeled, but you can check for this in the ingredients.
In addition to the quality of the carb sources you choose, what you pair them with can also make a difference. Adding the right amount of fat and protein choices to your meals can not only help you absorb carbohydrates more slowly, but can also play an important role in maintaining a better body composition - helping you accomplish your fitness and body goals (21,22).
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