How Many Carbs Should I Eat A Day? It is vital for you to know that carbohydrates are a requirement for the body. Today, carbohydrates have been considered as one of essential nutrients in supporting various bodily functions. As part of your daily diet, it is important to know not only how much carbs you should eat per day, but also why. This article will help in answering the question of how many carbs you should eat in a day for a healthy living.
What Are Carbs?
First, meet the macronutrients: carbs, fats, and protein. The primary purpose of carbs is to give you energy. (FYI, fat is used for energy, too. But it also protects organs, keeps you warm, and supports hormone production and cell growth. Protein provides structure for your cells and tissues and is used for the function and regulation of numerous body processes.) Most of the carbohydrates you eat are broken down by the digestive system into glucose, which is then used as energy to fuel your cells, tissues, and organs. Carbs can also be stored, so to speak, as fat cells for later use. (That’s why some people practice carb backloading.)
Tons of foods contain carbs. There are more obvious ones such as bread, oats, and rice, or sweets such as cake, cookies, pastries, candy, and chips. But beans and lentils, fruit and fruit juice, milk and dairy products, and even vegetables such as potatoes, peas, and corn have carbs. (All vegetables contain some carbs, but starchy veggies have about 15 grams per serving vs. 5 grams or less for non-starchy veggies.)
Carbs are made up of fiber, starch, and sugar. There are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate. You’ll often hear about “simple” carbs and “complex” carbs.
Simple carbs are the sugar — both the naturally occurring sugar present in foods and sugar that is added to foods. Some common examples of simple carbs are sugar-sweetened beverages, candy, white flour products, and fruit juice. Many studies have linked a high intake of simple carbs to health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. When it comes to reaching the recommended carbs per day, simple carbs aren’t exactly the ones you want to be filling up on (and oftentimes, they’re what experts suggest cutting back on).
Complex carbs are generally higher in fiber and are digested more slowly. Some common examples include whole grains, beans and legumes, vegetables, and whole fruit.
When you eat carbs, your blood glucose (blood sugar) rises. Consuming foods that contain protein and/or fat at the same time slows the rate at which that breakdown occurs, which helps maintain a more steady blood sugar level rather than causing a sharp spike and then crash. Fiber also helps slow that digestive process. That’s why whole foods — which naturally contain a balance of protein, fat, and fiber — are ideal.
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.
What “Counts” As a Carb Serving?
A serving of carbohydrates is equivalent to about 15 grams. These amounts of food each contain around 15 grams of carbs (in addition to their other components):
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup cooked grains
- 1 slice bread
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup cooked pasta
- 1/3 to 1/2 cup cooked (or 1/4 cup dry) beans, peas, or lentils
- 1/2 cup cooked potatoes or corn
- 1/2 of a medium baked potato or sweet potato
- 1 cup cooked pumpkin or winter squash (e.g. butternut squash)
- 3/4 to 1 cup of berries
- 1/2 of a 9-inch banana
- 1 small apple or pear
- 1/4 cup dried fruit
- 1/2 cup fruit juice
- Each serving of milk product usually provides about 12 to 15 grams (though strained Icelandic and Greek yogurts often have a smaller amount, around 8 per cup)
Ideal Daily Carbohydrates for Managing Diabetes
Carbohydrates—sugars, starches, and fiber—are a critical nutrient that is converted to sugar and used as fuel for the body. Individuals with diabetes, a group of metabolic conditions characterized by high blood sugars, can be impacted by how many and what type of carbohydrates, or carbs, they consume. This is why properly managing carbs is an important part of a diabetes treatment plan.
Carb Guidelines for People with Diabetes
Individuals with diabetes should get around 50% of their calories from carbohydrates. This means someone who eats 1,600 calories a day should eat 800 calories from carbs. Since carbs provide 4 calories per gram, this is equivalent to 200 grams of carbs per day.
Your personal target may vary. Guidelines from the American Diabetes Association note there is no exact percentage of calories from carbs, protein, and fat for individuals with diabetes.
A registered dietitian, nutritionist, or certified diabetes educator (CDE) can create personalized meal plans for individuals with diabetes.
These plans are based on things like
- Eating patterns
- Food preferences
During digestion, the body breaks down carbs into glucose, or sugar. The glucose then floods the bloodstream and gets processed so the body can use it for energy. In those with diabetes, the glucose stays in the blood, which can lead to serious health problems.
What Determines Ideal Carb Count?
Work with your healthcare team to decide how many carbs you need every day. Some things that will influence your carb intake include:
- Activity level
- Blood sugar numbers, which describe how much glucose is in your blood
How you spread your carbs out throughout the day will depend on things like:
- Diabetes medication, which may need to be taken with food
- Insulin use, which treats high glucose levels
- Eating patterns
- How your blood sugar changes after eating, or blood glucose response
A good way to figure out your ideal carb intake is to test your blood sugar before and after you eat. If your blood sugar is within target range two hours after a meal, your meal plan is working. If it’s higher, you may need to adjust your meal plan.
|Target Blood Glucose Levels 2 Hours After Eating|
|Adults who are not pregnant||180 mg/dL or less|
|Pregnant individuals with gestational diabetes||120 mg/dL or less|
|Pregnant individuals with preexisting type 1 or type 2 diabetes||120 mg/dL or less|
How to Choose the Right Type of Carbs
As mentioned above, not all carbs are created equal. The difference lies in how each carb is digested and utilized by the body. Some carbs, like simple and processed versions, are absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly – which work great for pre and post-workout nutrition but not necessarily all day long. Whereas other types, like whole grains and fibrous fruits, take much longer to digest – resulting in better blood sugar control when eaten throughout the day as part of a balanced diet.
What are Good Carbs?
carbohydrates are often described as simple or complex. And the two can be distinguished using the Glycemic Index (GI scale).
The GI serves as a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
Some nutrition experts argue that you should choose your carbs based on this measurement. However, the GI does not consider how many grams of carbs are actually in a food and does not consider your diet as a whole, so the glycemic load was introduced as a stronger approach to ranking carb quality .
An even easier way to approach the quality of your carb intake is to just choose more whole foods that provide naturally occurring sugars. This includes just about everything that grows out of the ground and some dairy options – you know, the options without a long ingredients list, usually just the food itself.
What Are Refined Carbs?
Refined carbs come primarily from processed foods and added sugars. The classic example is whole wheat flour vs. white flour. Whole wheat flour is made by grinding the whole grain as it is found in nature. Whereas white flour is made from wheat grains whose tough outer layers have been removed (or processed) – creating a lighter fluffier flour option, but also removing a majority of the grain’s nutrients and fiber. White rice vs brown rice is another grain example.
The main problem with refined carbs is their lack of nutritional value compared to their whole food counterpart. And because refined grains make up a decent portion of common foods that we eat, many processed grains are fortified with key vitamins and minerals, like B vitamins, zinc, and iron.
But realistically, all types of carbohydrates can fit into a healthy diet, as long as a balanced dietary approach including healthy fats and lean protein is used overall. It really just depends on your personal needs. And remember, no single food or meal is going to make or break your whole diet – it’s the combination of all the foods you’ve eaten over an extended period of time.
What Does 100 grams of Good Carbs Per Day Look Like?
- 1 cup of cooked quinoa: 40g carb
- 1 apple: 25g carb
- 1/2 cup of black beans: 20 g carb
- 1/2 cup of fresh blueberries: 5g carb
- 1 cup Brussel sprouts: 10g carb
With this 100 grams of carbohydrates, you also get 3.5 to 4 cups of food, 25 grams of fiber, 200% of the daily value for vitamin C, 26% of the daily value for vitamin A, and 18% of the daily value for iron.
What Does 100 grams of Refined Carbs Per Day Look Like?
- 1 candy bar (2 oz): 71g carb
- 1 can of soda (12 oz): 37g carb
With this 108 grams of carbohydrates, you get significantly less food, only 1 to 2 grams of fiber, 0% of the daily value for vitamin C, 0% of the daily value for vitamin A, and 6% of the daily value for iron.
How to Count Carbs
You don’t need to be a nutritionist to learn how to count your daily carb intake. All it takes is a little investigating and paying attention to what you’re putting in your mouth.
Once you understand where carbs come from, the counting part is pretty simple. And if you’re counting macros, you’re counting carbs.
Here are the two easiest ways to track your carbs.
- Use a macro friendly nutrition app, like Trifecta, and track your daily food intake.
- Read the nutrition facts label. Carbs and fiber amounts are clearly listed on all packaged foods. Currently added sugar is not required to be labeled, but you can check for this in the ingredients.
In addition to the quality of the carb sources you choose, what you pair them with can also make a difference. Adding the right amount of fat and protein choices to your meals can not only help you absorb carbohydrates more slowly, but can also play an important role in maintaining a better body composition – helping you accomplish your fitness and body goals