Am I Eating Too Many Carbs?
Pasta and bread and potatoes, oh my! When it comes to carbohydrates, it can seem like they are everywhere. Enter any restaurant, gas station, and even your grandmother’s kitchen and there they are – carbs hiding in plain sight in your favorite lasagna dish, mac and cheese, or even her specialty cheesecake.
Whether you are following a low carbohydrate diet plan, or attempting to control your blood sugars as a diabetic, it's important to get some sort of reference point for how many carbohydrates you need. Fortunately, there is a plethora of research surrounding this topic, and lots of recommendations on just how many carbs you need to be healthy and achieve a normal weight.
Carbohydrate Stats to Consider
There are a few factors that can affect the amount of carbohydrates you need, such as age, activity level, pregnancy, and whether or not you have diabetes.
Higher intakes of carbohydrates, such as a diet that provides greater than 65% of energy in the form of calories from solely carbohydrates are associated with increased triglyceride levels in the bloodstream, as well as reduced HDL cholesterol, which is 'good' cholesterol in the body. This puts individuals consuming too many carbohydrates at a greater risk for the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease.
So what does 45%-65% of calories coming from carbohydrates actually look like? Let's say you are female of medium height and normal weight, around 45 years old, with no medical issues. You exercise 1-2 times per week and work in an office setting. Your ideal carbohydrate range would be around 180 grams per day, ideally spread out among meals that contain around whole grain, fiber rich carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, wild rice, and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and corn.
If you are trying to lose weight, then reducing your daily calories by reducing your carbohydrate intakes each day is a good idea, and the National Institutes of Heath (NIH) recommends reducing your carbohydrates by around 55g per day, which would be around 130 grams of total carbohydrates per day.
During pregnancy, it is imperative that women consume at minimum 135 grams of carbohydrate each day to prevent entering a metabolic state that could be dangerous to fetal health. People who have diabetes require a minimum of 175 grams of fiber-rich carbohydrate spread throughout 6 meals and snacks each day.
If you have diabetes and are wondering if you are eating too many carbohydrates - there's an easy way to find out. Your doctor has probably performed a Hemoglobin A1c (Hb A1c) test, which measures the amount of glucose—or sugar—that is present on your red blood cells. This test can tell your physician how high your blood sugars have been running within the past 3 months. When your HbA1c is high, it could be an indicator that you are consuming too many carbohydrates - because carbohydrates get converted into sugar once they are digested and absorbed into your bloodstream.
Another indicator that you might be consuming too many carbohydrates is if you gain weight. Whenever you eat too many calories, whether those calories come from fat, carbohydrates and sugar, or protein, it becomes much easier to gain weight. The target amount of carbohydrates for health is between 40-65% of calories from carbohydrates.
Exercise and Eating too Many Carbs
When you are exercising, it is slightly more difficult to eat too many carbs, but it can certainly happen. Depending on the intensity of your exercise, you will burn a blend of both carbohydrates that your body has stored in your muscle tissue, as well as fat that is available in your bloodstream.
With more intense exercise, there is a reduced amount of oxygen in your blood, leading to a reduced fat burn and increased carbohydrate burn for energy. Which means if you are sprinting and your heart rate is elevated, you're burning more stored carbohydrates than fatty acids in your blood.
During slower exercise, more fat burn is common, but overall most individuals burn fewer total calories for the duration of exercise. Overall, exercise, whether it is fast or slow, will allow most individuals to consume more carbohydrates than if they were not exercising in order to maintain weight.
How Many Carbohydrates as You Age?
As we grow older and wiser, we typically require fewer carbohydrates. Physical movement and activity often decreases, and mobility overall can decline in the elderly population. That means we simply burn fewer carbohydrates from movement.
Your muscles and your brain are excellent at burning carbohydrates in the form of glucose. As we age, we typically lose lean body mass, which is just a combination of our muscle tissue and vital organs. When we lose muscle as we age, we cannot burn through carbohydrates as well as when we are younger - picture a child hyped up on sugar versus an older adult following dessert. This is one of the reasons we most likely need fewer carbohydrates as we age.
Disorders in lipid Metabolism Evidence-Based Nutrition Practice Guideline. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Evidence Analysis Library. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; 2011. Available at: http://www.andevidencelibrary.com. Accessed September 21, 2015.