Some straight talk on carbohydrates

By Jenni Wolf

With March comes the Bugle’s Wellness section, an annual feature that also coincides with National Nutrition Month.

Today we are going to dive into the always “hot” topic of carbohydrates—something you have likely heard a lot about and probably find yourself a bit confused about at times.

Carbohydrates are one of the three major nutrients, or macronutrients, our bodies need. In fact, most of us need more carbohydrates than proteins or fats, the other two macronutrients, on a daily basis.

At the same time, I bet you have heard your mom, friend or doctor—or whoever—rattle on about their efforts to reduce or limit their carb intake or recommend a low-carb diet. Or maybe you’ve even tried this yourself. Seem contradictory? I think so, too. Let’s set the facts straight.

Why do we need carbs?

Carbohydrates are the body’s number one preferred source of energy. All our cells and tissues can use them for fuel. If we lack an adequate source and supply of carbs, we can become moody and irritable with feelings of low energy and dysregulated blood sugar levels.

Additionally, the body will recognize the missing supply of immediate energy and shift into conservation mode which can slow down your metabolism and lead to weight gain and loss of muscle mass. Carbohydrates also taste good and help make meals feel more satisfactory.

Do I need to limit carbs?

The short answer: Generally, no! We need to include them alongside fat and protein choices to get our nutritional needs met and keep energy levels up—and to live an enjoyable life!

Additionally, we know we often “want what we can’t have,” especially if it is something we need to survive and restricting yourself from carbs greatly increases the likelihood of going overboard and feeling unwell when you do include them.

The long answer: Everyone is different and certain medical conditions can warrant a shifted approach to carb intake such as being mindful around sources of carbs and portion sizes. If you have a concern, it is best to get connected with a dietitian in your community for individualized support.

How many carbs do I need to eat?

I recommend that you include at least 1 to 2 sources of carbs at every meal and at least 1 at every snack—shooting for three meals and several snacks per day.

If you have a more active lifestyle, you will need more carbs for support. Fun fact: An average adult needs approximately the equivalent number of carbohydrates that you would find in 12-15 slices of bread per day!

Which foods contain carbohydrates?

Most of us probably think of grain-based foods when we think of carbs: pasta, bread, cereal, crackers and chips. Fruits, vegetables and beans, as well as dairy products and dessert items, also contain carbs and are all other ways to help meet your daily needs.

What about whole grains?

Whole grains are an important part of our diet and offer more fiber and micronutrients than you’d find in refined grains. That said, refined grains are also tasty options that provide nutrition in the form of carbs and micronutrients and often may be more affordable, easier to prepare and more widely available. I recommend shooting to make half your grains whole to get a good balance of nutrition, convenience and taste.

What about the Keto and Atkins diets?

These popular diets can promise a lot, but what they don’t talk about is how you might feel after trying to keep this up in the long run or the toll it can take on your body.

As previously mentioned earlier, low-carb diets keep your body from getting access to the available energy it needs which can lead you to feel poorly, be at risk for health complications and crave the foods you are missing out on which increases the risk of overeating or binging. Balance is best, my friends!

So, what should I think about when choosing carbohydrate-containing foods?

First, think about the carb-containing foods you enjoy. Are they a variety of grain-based items, fruits, vegetables, dairy and desserts? If so, great—if not, be intentional about including some of each throughout your day.

Additionally, reflect on where whole grains show up in your diet. If you notice them lacking, identify a few sources you enjoy the taste of and start including one every day. My favorites for those new to whole-grains include popcorn, oatmeal and bread made with white-whole wheat flour which has a milder taste.

Above all, remember the three tenets of balance, variety and moderation when it comes to other food groups beyond carbohydrates. When we truly use those principles to guide us, we are more likely to stay healthy, get what we are need, not get too much of something and enjoy the foods we are eating. We are also more likely to enjoy our food experiences. 

Jenni Wolf is a dietitian in the community who is passionate about helping others nourish a positive and balanced relationship with food.

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