The Role & Importance of Quality Carbohydrates

"Carbs" are a hot topic of conversation and leads to some confusion in the health world. Better understand how carbs work and a recommended carb intake for good health.

The Role & Importance of Quality Carbohydrates

"Carbs" have become quite the topic of conversation in the health world. Such chatter mostly stems from the hype of the keto diet, Atkins diet, and other low-fat diet plans.

Carbohydrates are likewise the targeted culprit of weight gain. While weight gain can happen if eating too many carbs, consuming protein and fat in excess can as well.

What's more, some carbs are nutrient-dense with beneficial plant compounds such as fiber. Research shows people who consume a high-fiber are more likely to maintain a healthy weight and lower their risk of many health problems.

With such confusion, how many carbs should we really be eating? Find out expert recommendations on just how many carbs to be healthy and achieve a normal weight.

Understanding Carbohydrates Function

Carbohydrate, commonly known as "carb," is one of the three fundamental macronutrients. Protein and fat are the other two. Like all macronutrients, each holds their own value and offers a variety of benefits to the body.

Carbs are considered to be the body's main energy source. They are quickly utilized by the brain and muscles. The ones not used for immediate are stored in the liver or muscles for a later time.

Carbohydrate is mostly an umbrella term, as it encompasses simple and complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber. Each offers different characteristics, particularly related to their absorbability and digestibility.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates or sugars are quickly digested and absorbed in the body. Structurally, simple carbs or sugars contain one or two sugar molecules.

Simple carbs with one sugar molecule are monosaccharides, including fructose, glucose, and galactose. Two sugar molecules attached together are known as disaccharides, which include sucrose, maltose, and lactose.

Simple sugars are found in a wide variety of sources, including dairy products, fruits, veggies, cookies, and cakes. Though all considered simple sugars, cookies and cakes are mostly filled with refined carbs and low in nutritional value. The fiber content in fruits and vegetables also places fruits and veggies into the complex carb group.

Limiting simple sugars, especially from processed foods, is extremely important for keeping blood sugars within normal levels. When concentrated sweets are consumed, they are likely to spike not only blood sugar levels but insulin production.

Insulin is a hormone that assists glucose in entering the body's cells to be used for energy. But when there is too much, the cells become overloaded and deny some of the sugar. In turn, the excess glucose is converted into fat and stored.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are also known as polysaccharides, which contain three or more sugars and also recognized as starches.

Complex carbs are generally digested and absorbed much more slowly than simple carbs. The gentle absorption helps keep blood sugar levels sustained and steady. Simple carbs ignite quick energy that may spike blood sugar levels.

Dietary Fiber

Dietary fiber is a component found in plants. Unlike sugar and starch, fiber is not absorbed by the body. Instead, fiber remains mostly intact.

Fiber is further broken down into soluble and insoluble fibers, offering benefits to heart and digestive health.

Daily Carb Intake

First and foremost, daily carbohydrate intake recommendations are not a one-size-fits-all. This is just as calorie needs vary between people and their nutritional needs.

There are many factors that can affect the amount of carbohydrates needed each day, including age, activity levels, diabetes, and pregnancy.

1. Age

The muscles and brain are excellent at burning carbohydrates in the form of glucose. As the body ages, though, it typically loses lean body mass, including muscle tissue and vital organs.

When losing muscle with age, the body does burn through carbohydrates as well as when we are younger. This is one of the reasons we most likely need fewer carbohydrates as we age.

2. Activity Level

Activity level impacts calorie needs, in turn dictating daily carb content. A sedentary individual not only requires less calories than an active person, but fewer carbs.

Strength trainers and endurance athletes often require significantly more carbohydrate compared to the average population to perform optimally.

3. Diabetes

Out of three macronutrients, carbohydrate is the one that impacts blood glucose or sugar levels. If diagnosed with diabetes, monitoring carb intake is key for managing blood sugar levels.

In addition to regularly measuring blood glucose, a doctor can perform a Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) test. HbA1c measures the amount of glucose present on red blood cells over a 3-month course. If HbA1c is high, it could be an indicator that you are consuming too many carbohydrates.

4. Pregnancy

It is important for expecting women to meet nutritional needs to support a healthy pregnancy. Calorie and carb needs also vary based on trimester.

However, some women experience gestational diabetes, or diabetes during pregnancy. This may require limiting carbohydrate intake to 40 percent to 50 percent of daily calories according to UCSF Health.

Despite the various factors, the USDA's Dietary Guidelines recommends carbs provide 45 to 65 percent of total daily calorie needs. But what does 45 to 65 percent of calories coming from carbohydrates actually look like?

1. Start by identifying daily calorie needs, or for educational purposes, a standard 2,000 calorie diet.

2. Forty-five to 65 percent of 2,000 calories equates to 900 to 1,300 calories coming from carbohydrate.

3. Then, divide each calorie range by 4, since carbs provide 4 calories per gram.

4. This ultimately comes out to 225 to 325 grams of carb daily.

5. The grams of carbs would then be divided throughout meals and snacks accordingly.

All-in-all, carb intake varies based on calorie needs and goals. A lower carb diet may offer more health benefits in regard to weight loss and metabolic health.

How Many Carbs In a Low-Carb Diet?

A low-carb eating plan has fairly loose guidelines and can vary based on restrictiveness. Overall, though, a low-carb diet generally limits carbs to no more than 20 percent of total calorie needs. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, this equates to a max of 100 grams of carb daily.

Low-carb diets naturally reduce calorie content. But lowering carb intake also helps clear insulin from the bloodstream. Insulin is a hormone released in response to carb intake for energy use. But it can also store that energy as fat, thus leading to weight gain.

That being said, following a low-carb diet has implications for weight maintenance. A low-glycemic diet also lowers the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Some do, however, find success dramatically restricting carbs on a ketogenic diet.

On the flip side of the coin, following a low-carb diet may not be beneficial to those living a highly active lifestyle. This is because muscles use glucose from carbs for energy and stores it as fuel.

Ensuring Adequate Carb Intake

First and foremost, consult with a dietitian or physician to help determine the amount of carbs if needed. They will help factor in age, activity level, disease states, goals, etc.

Nevertheless, all can benefit from focusing on wholesome carb sources over refined products. Besides, diets rich in carbohydrate and sugar are linked to cholesterol, including increased triglyceride levels in the bloodstream.

High-sugar diets can also reduce HDL cholesterol, which is known as that "good" cholesterol in the body. This puts individuals consuming too many carbohydrates at a greater risk for developing atherosclerosis and heart disease.

When it comes to a balanced carbohydrate diet, it limits empty calories from simple carbs, refined grains, and added sugars. Instead, it embraces nutrient-dense and fiber-rich carbohydrate sources. Healthy carbs from a variety of food groups include:

Whole grains and associated products: barley, oats, rice, rye, wheat, along with whole-grain breads, cereals and flours

Beans and legumes: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, pinto beans, soybeans

Fiber-rich fruits: apples, bananas, blueberries, oranges, pears, raspberries, strawberries

Starchy vegetables: carrots, corn, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, squash, zucchini

Fiber-rich vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, onions, peppers, spinach, tomatoes

Dairy products: milk, cottage cheese, cheese sticks, yogurt

Nuts and seeds: almonds, pecans, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts

One can ensure adequate carb and nutrients by constructing a balanced meal plate with these simple steps:

1. Start by filling half of the plate with non-starchy veggies, including salad greens, broccoli, or asparagus.

2. Designate a quarter for a lean protein such as chicken, sirloin, and turkey. Tofu, beans, and other plant-based proteins supply protein while being rich in fiber.

3. Allot the remaining quarter for a complex carb or starch. This may include a serving of brown rice or small sweet potato.

4. Complement with a healthy fat source, including nuts, olive oil, and fatty fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

5. Add dairy and fruit as desired.

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