Carbohydrates are Essential to a Healthy Diet!

Carbohydrates (or carbs) can sometimes have a bad reputation among people trying to lose weight or manage diabetes. Our body relies on carbs to function properly. They are the body’s preferred source of energy, plus they provide key nutrients, like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Without them, people can experience low energy, fatigue, and brain fogginess from blood sugar dips through the day.

It is a misconception that these are the foods that must be cut first from the diet all-together. While it can lead to short-term results, this is not a sustainable way to manage weight or blood sugar long-term. Carbs are unstable molecules that require water to stabilize them – this is why when someone cuts carbs they lose ~5 pounds in the first week, because they lose a lot of water weight. And on the flip side that’s also why the weight comes back quickly, from the water, which is why people think carbs cause weight gain.

Focusing awareness on the type of carbohydrate and the amount are most important to consider.

First, a review of the types of carbs:

1. Starches – present in plant sources such as potato, peas, corn, beans, lentils, rice, and grains.

2. Sugar – natural sugars are present in fruit and dairy. Added sugar is found in processed foods, such as candy, cakes, snack foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, juice, sweet tea).

3. Fiber –an indigestible component of plant foods that is helpful for digestion, heart health, and diabetes.

As part of a healthy diet, choose more carbs that come from nutrient-dense, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. These are also referred to as complex carbs because they contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals. The daily recommended goal for fiber is 25 grams per day for women and 30 grams per day for men.

It is important to address misconceptions about fruits. Yes, they do contain natural sugars. However, they also have the benefits of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. As compared to eating sugars from candy, you get all the same sugar, but none of the other nutrients. These are also referred to as simple carbohydrates.

Another difference between fruits and candy is their glycemic index (GI). Glycemic index assigns a numeric score to a food based on how drastically it makes your blood sugar rise. Foods are ranked on a scale of 0-100, with pure sugar given a value of 100. The lower a food’s glycemic index, the slower blood sugar rises after eating that food. In general, the more processed a food is, the higher its GI, and the more fiber or fat in a food, the lower its GI. Both the fruit and the candy will raise your blood sugar after you eat them, whether you have diabetes or not. Ideally, we eat foods with a slower, steadier breakdown to sustain our energy levels longer without a “crash.”

The amount of carbs a person needs daily varies depending on their health status, body weight, physical activity goals, and food preferences. If you exercise, you may need more to support energy and recover. If you have diabetes, you may need to limit the amount you eat at meals.

The current nutrition guidelines can provide a starting point for deciding how much you can consume. The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) is 130 grams per day. This is based on the amount of glucose that is needed JUST for brain function! The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest that between 45 – 65% of calories should come from carbs. For a person following a 2,000 calorie diet, that translates to between 225 – 325 grams per day. You can work with your dietitian to find out how much would be suitable for your health needs and goals.

Bottom line: Eat mostly complex carbs (fiber) and limit simple carbohydrates (added sugar) for sustained energy, weight management, and blood sugar control. Everyone has different carbohydrate needs, but it is not a good idea to eliminate them completely.

-Natalie Day, MS, RDN, LD

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