With all of the diet books, low-carb labels, and celebs talking smack about carbohydrates, you may be left wondering if you should be eating carbs at all. In a word: yes. But you should know that while some carbs treat your body right, others may be doing more harm than good. Here’s a crash course on the carbs you need and the ones to skip.
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How Many Carbs Do You Really Need?
Each macronutrient has a job that it’s best equipped to do. The Recommended Daily Allowance for carbohydrates (130 grams) allows it to do its most important duty: fuel the brain. The body breaks down all carbs, except fiber, into the simplest form, glucose.
The USDA Dietary Guidelines recommend 45 to 65 percent of total calories as carbohydrates, which equates to 247 to 357 grams per day on a 2,200-calorie diet (for perspective, a cup of pasta or can of regular soda contains 38 grams of carbs). Nutritionists may recommend a lower range depending on your goals and metabolism, such as 40 percent for weight loss.
Brooke Schohl, MS, RD, a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a triathlete who prescribes diet regimens to fuel endurance clients, says, “100 grams of carbohydrates per day is the absolute minimum I recommend to fuel workouts after fat-burning has been exhausted.” She prefers that clients balance carbs with fat and protein, rather than going drastically low-carb like the ketogenic diet, which she thinks is too low and unsustainable. “I generally recommend people reduce carbs while increasing fat,” she says, recommending good fats from avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and oily fish.
Carbs are also the main energy source for muscles for people who haven’t trained their bodies to burn fat for fuel, which means most of us. Protein and fat can eventually break down into fuel, but it’s an inefficient process, since protein is better at building muscle. Carbs also help shuttle amino acids (the building blocks for protein) into muscle cells.
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Carbs That are Good for You
“Focus on fruit, vegetable, and legume carbs first,” Schohl recommends, since people don’t pay enough attention to these foods. “Then focus on whole grains.”
Beans, Peas, and Lentils: These pulses contain protein, carbs, and a crazy amount of fiber. While fiber counts toward total carbs, the body doesn’t absorb fiber calories — an added benefit if you are trying to lose weight.
Vegetables: Spinach, broccoli, and asparagus are low-carb and good for you. Same goes for orange, red, purple, brown, and yellow vegetables. As for white potatoes, which are higher in carbs, studies have shown that people who eat potatoes weekly don’t weigh more than people who don’t eat potatoes, so long as they’re not drenched in fat. Put simply, eat three cups of vegetables, mostly the non-starchy kind, per day, in different colors.
Fruit: About two cups of whole fruit per day suits most guys well. While fruit contains naturally occurring sugar, fruit’s fiber contents help blunt blood-sugar spikes and keeps food sticking around longer in your stomach. Grab dried fruit with no added sugar like raisins, dates, and apricots, and stick to a quarter cup per serving.
Whole Grains: A new study from Tufts University showed how people who replaced refined grains with whole-grain versions lost 100 more calories per day due to a rise in metabolism and not absorbing some of the carbs eaten at the given meal. Whole grains contain the bran and germ, while refined grains don’t. Whole grains can also help you feel fuller longer, due to their fiber content. The best whole grains are thought to be the ones still intact, like brown rice and oats, but foods made with 100-percent whole-grain flour still provide the goods.
Milk and Yogurt: Plain milk and yogurt, whether from a cow or soybean, contain some naturally occurring sugars. The protein, and oftentimes fat, in these foods help minimize a rise in blood sugars. Flavored yogurt usually contains added sugar, however, so compare labels for the best choice.
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