Calculating “how much carbohydrates should i eat per day” can be easy if you remember that carbohydrates are found in foods like bread, cereal, fruits, vegetables and pasta. Look on the Nutrition Facts label of your favorite foods to find out how many carbohydrate grams are in it.
Carbohydrates are the most abundant type of macro-nutrient in food and make up half of our daily caloric intake. But their role goes far beyond that of calories. In this guide, we’ll take a look at the recommended carbohydrate intake, examine popular food sources, and provide tips for how to navigate the carbohydrate strand in today’s foods.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates (carbs) are one of three primary macronutrients that provide energy, along with fats and proteins. Carbohydrates are broken down in the body or converted into glucose, and serve as the body’s main source of energy. They can also be stored as energy in the form of glycogen, or converted to fat (which can also be used as a source of energy).
Types of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are often classified as either simple (monosaccharides and disaccharides) or complex (polysaccharides or oligosaccharides), originally to create a distinction between sugars and other carbohydrates. However, there are many foods that contain multiple types of carbohydrates, such as fruits and vegetables, which can make the classification of certain foods ambiguous. Although carbohydrates are not essential nutrients (nutrients required for normal physiological function that the body cannot synthesize), they are an efficient source of energy that can potentially reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, obesity, and type 2 diabetes if consumed in controlled amounts.
The three main types of carbohydrates are sugar, starch, and fiber:
- Sugars are the simplest form of carbohydrates and can be found naturally in fruits, dairy, and vegetables; they can also be found in processed form in candy, cookies, cakes, and many beverages.
- Starches are complex carbohydrates that can be found naturally in many types of beans, vegetables, and grains.
- Fibers are complex carbohydrates that can be found in fruits, whole grains, vegetables, and many types of beans. Fibers are essential for digestion.
Generally, complex carbohydrates have greater nutritional benefits than simple carbohydrates, which are sometimes referred to as “empty carbs.” Added sugars, a common form of simple carbohydrates, have little nutritional value and are not necessary for survival. While the body does require some carbohydrates (which are broken down into sugar), it is not necessary to consume sugary foods to meet this need. Complex carbohydrates such as fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and others, also provide carbohydrates the body can use for energy to function, along with many other nutrients it can use. Complex carbs are also digested more slowly, allowing a person to feel full for longer periods of time, which can help when trying to control weight. On the other hand, foods comprised of mainly simple carbohydrates such as soda, cookies, juice, and other baked goods, often have large amounts of sugars and fats, which may potentially lead to weight gain and diabetes since they tend to be easier to consume in excess.
Carbs are part of a well-balanced diet
“Carbs,” also known as carbohydrates, are one of the macronutrients, which are the compounds that give your body energy in the form of calories. Foods with carbs are digested into sugar, which provides your body with glucose, an important source of energy. Your body requires carbohydrates to function properly.
There are two main types of carbs: complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates are those that are less processed, more slowly digested, and high in dietary fiber. Simple carbohydrates are those that are more quickly digested. They are often added to processed and prepared foods in the form of refined sugars and processed sweeteners.
Some sources of carbohydrates are healthier than others. Learn how many carbs you need and which carbs to stay away from.
How many carbs do you need?
Depending on your age, sex, activity level, and overall health, your carbohydrate requirements will vary. According to the Mayo Clinic, 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. That’s equal to about 225 to 325 grams of carbs if you eat 2,000 calories a day.
It’s not always practical to count your carbs, so the American Diabetes Association offers a simple strategy to structure your plate at every meal to help you get the right amount of carbs:
- Draw an imaginary vertical line down the middle of your plate. Then draw a horizontal line across one half, so your plate is divided into three sections.
- Fill the big section with non-starchy vegetables, such as spinach, carrots, lettuce, green cabbage, or mushrooms.
- Fill one of the small sections with starchy vegetables, such as potatoes or winter squash, or grains, such as whole grain pasta or brown rice. Legumes, such as black peas or pinto beans, are also great options.
- Fill the other small section with protein. For example, you might choose low-fat options, such as skinless chicken or turkey, salmon or catfish, or lean cuts of beef.
- Add a small serving of fruit or low-fat dairy on the side.
- Choose foods that contain healthy fats such as olive oil, avocados, seeds, and nuts.
- Enjoy a low-calorie drink, such as water, unsweetened tea, or coffee.
What foods contain starch?
Starch can be found in starchy vegetables and grain products, such as:
- winter squash
- green peas
- dried beans
- bread and bread products
When you’re filling a small portion of your plate with grains or starchy vegetables, choose high-fiber, unprocessed options with little to no added sugar and fat. Starchy vegetables and whole grains are rich sources of minerals, vitamins, and fiber.
What foods contain fiber?
Fiber has many health benefits. According to the Mayo Clinic, a high-fiber diet can help prevent constipation, lower cholesterol, regulate blood sugar, and reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes. If you’re 50 years old or younger, you should eat about 38 grams of fiber per day if you’re a man and 25 grams if you’re a woman. If you’re over the age of 50, you should eat about 30 grams per day if you’re a man and 21 grams if you’re a woman.
Dietary fiber can be found in:
- whole grains
- nuts, seeds, and legumes
Look for breads, crackers, pastas, and other products that list whole grains as their first ingredient. Check the nutrition label; foods that have 3-5 grams of fiber or more are good high-fiber options. You can also serve steamed or boiled whole grains, such as brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and oats.
What foods contain sugar?
It’s good to get your carbohydrate intake from complex carbohydrates, such as starch and fiber, as well as from natural sugars like fresh fruits and some vegetables.
You should avoid refined and added sugars as much as possible. These foods provide “empty” calories, which means they’re high in calories but low in nutrients. Foods with added sugars tend to have fewer nutrients than foods with naturally occurring sugars.
Not sure what to avoid? Watch out for these sugar-laden sweeteners on nutrition labels:
- brown sugar
- corn sweetener
- corn syrup
- fruit juice concentrate
- high-fructose corn syrup
- invert sugar
- malt syrup
- raw sugar
Limit foods that contain these added sweeteners to the occasional treat. Remember that ingredients on food labels are listed by quantity, from most to least. Foods where these sweeteners appear higher in the ingredient list, or which contain multiple types of sugar, will have a higher content of added sugar.
How many carbohydrates do you need?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates make up 45% to 65% of total daily calories.
So if you get 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbs a day.
You can find the carbohydrate content of packaged foods on the Nutrition Facts label. The label shows total carbohydrates — which can include fiber, total sugars and added sugars.
Carbohydrates and your health
Despite their bad reputation, carbohydrates are vital to your health for many reasons.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel source. During digestion, sugars and starches are broken down into simple sugars. They’re then absorbed into the bloodstream, where they’re known as blood sugar (blood glucose).
From there, glucose enters the body’s cells with the help of insulin. Glucose is used by the body for energy. Glucose fuels your activities — whether it’s going for a jog or simply breathing and thinking. Extra glucose is stored in the liver, muscles and other cells for later use. Or extra glucose is converted to fat.
Protecting against disease
Some evidence suggests that whole grains and dietary fiber from whole foods help lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Fiber may also protect against obesity, colon and rectal cancers, and type 2 diabetes. Fiber is also essential for optimal digestive health.
Evidence shows that eating plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains can help you control your weight. Their bulk and fiber content aids weight control by helping you feel full on fewer calories. Despite what proponents of low-carb diets claim, few studies show that a diet rich in healthy carbs leads to weight gain or obesity.
Choose your carbohydrates wisely
Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, and they provide many important nutrients. Still, not all carbs are equally good for you.
Here’s how to make healthy carbohydrates work in a balanced diet:
- Focus on eating fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Aim for whole fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables without added sugar. Or have measured portions of fruit juices and dried fruits, which are concentrated sources of natural sugar, but have more calories. Whole fruits and vegetables have many health benefits. They add fiber, water and bulk, which help you feel fuller on fewer calories.
- Choose whole grains. Whole grains are better sources than refined grains of fiber and other important nutrients, such as B vitamins. Refined grains go through a process that strips out parts of the grain — along with some of the nutrients and fiber.
- Stick to low-fat dairy products. Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are good sources of calcium, protein, vitamin D, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals. Consider the low-fat versions to help limit calories and saturated fat. And watch out for dairy products that have added sugar.
- Eat more beans, peas and lentils. Beans, peas and lentils are among the most versatile and nutritious foods. They are typically low in fat and high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium. And they have useful fats and fiber. They are a good source of protein and can be a healthy substitute for meat, which has more saturated fat and cholesterol.
- Limit added sugars. Added sugar probably isn’t harmful in small amounts. But there’s no health benefit to having any amount of added sugar, such as in cookies and pastries. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that less than 10% of calories you eat or drink every day come from added sugar. Eating or drinking too many foods with sugar can also cause you to take in more than the calories you need each day.
BEST SOURCES OF CARBOHYDRATES
Sweet potatoes are rich in simple starches and complex carbohydrates, and high in fiber, beta-carotene, and vitamins. Its naturally occurring sugars (9g) will raise insulin levels—if you’re diabetic, yams are a better choice, because they have more fiber and less sugar—but one medium-sized cooked sweet potato comes in a little over 100 calories and boasts 27g of total carbohydrates—four of which come from fiber. And sweet potatoes are a powerhouse recovery food. Their carotenoids help aid cell repair, the starchy carbs help restock energy stores, and fiber will keep you full so you’re not digging around for its unhealthier cousin—the potato chip.
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You may not be familiar with taro, but its root (called a corm) is one of the most popular root vegetables in Asia, South America, and parts of the Pacific Islands. When cooked, its natural sugars give it a sweet, nutty flavor. Nutritionally speaking, taro is one of the finest sources of dietary fibers. One cup of taro sliced and cooked yields nearly 7g of fiber and has less than 1g of sugar—both of which comprise its 46g of total carbohydrates. The slow-digesting complex carbs help to gradually raise your blood sugar levels, giving you longer-lasting energy.
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One of the more popular legumes, chickpeas are an excellent carb go-to—especially if you’re trying to stay lean. One cooked cup of this versatile bean contains 45g of slow-acting carbs, 12g of which are fiber. Daily consumption can lead to better weight management and weight loss because they’re low on the glycemic index and stabilize your hunger levels. What’s more: research has found it can even lower bad cholesterol.
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Brown rice is a great staple because it’s filling and inexpensive. It’s also one of the richest sources of carbohydrates among grains (45g per cooked cup). With 4g of fiber, it provides long-lasting energy and promotes less fat storage as compared to white rice. Other top-tier sources of fiber-rich carbohydrates include buckwheat and quinoa.
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Old-fashioned oats couldn’t be a better breakfast essential. One cup yields 104g of carbs, 17 of which are fiber. Because they’re essentially a blank slate, you can dress them up with nutritionally dense add-ins. Oats also contain a super fiber called beta-glucan, which gives fiber its cholesterol-lowering effect. This also helps slow the digestion of food, allowing you to feel satisfied for hours.
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Blueberries and other berries are among the most nutritious sources of carbohydrate when it comes to fruit. They’re rich in vitamins, minerals, and can even turn white fat into calorie-burning beige fat. They aren’t the most concentrated source of carbs; a cup of blueberries has 10g (7g from sugar, 2 from fiber), but they do have incredibly high antioxidant levels and a multitude of health benefits thanks to their polyphenols.
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Bananas are easy to digest, loaded with fast-acting carbohydrates (one large banana provides 31 grams of carbs), and packed with potassium, which aids in maintaining nerve and muscle function. Basically, this is nature’s own version of the perfect pre- or post-workout snack. To amplify the health benefits, add some nut butter to promote muscle recovery and repair.
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Chestnuts are different from other nuts in that they have very little protein or fat. They’re chiefly made of starch—comparable to sweet potatoes, actually—and their calories come primarily from carbohydrates, which is comparable to wheat and rice (44g carb per 100g—11g from sugar, 8g from fiber). Chestnuts are exceptionally rich in vitamin C, folates, and monounsaturated fats like oleic acid to boot.
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An 8-ounce serving of nonfat, plain Greek yogurt has 11g of carbohydrates (6g of sugar), making it a good pre-or post-workout snack because it’ll give you quick energy. If you’ve sworn yourself off dairy, know that calcium plays a role in muscle contraction, keeping your heart healthy, and regulating your metabolism.