Did I trick you with the title? We’ve gotten so used to seeing “cut out carbs” in the last decade, you might think this post is about low-carb eating. Quite the contrary. People are often misled about carbohydrates and as a result don’t know where to place them in their eating plan, especially if they are dieting. If that sounds like you, read on because just in case you don’t know, carbs are necessary for health.
1. You need carbs. Our brains thrive on simple carbohydrates – glucose to be specific. That’s why the body breaks down carbs into glucose – so the brain can eat. So why in the world would you cut out carbs? Don’t do it. The problem people run into is that quality counts and they don’t always focus on quality when it comes to carb intake. I’ll cover that later on in this article.
2. Estimate your good carb range. The brain alone needs about 135 grams of carbohydrates a day, which you can easily get through healthy carbohydrate foods (more on that later). You then need carbs to help support your daily activities. The more active you are engaged in, the more carbs you need. Roughly, everyone fits into a 40-65% of calories range, with the exception of endurance athletes in a carbo load phase. If you’re trying to lose weight, calculate about 45%-50% carbs and go in that range.
3. Not all carbs are created equal. Carbohydrates are made up of sugars connected together. When I say sugar, you probably say things like “fattening,” “diabetes,” and “avoid.” But there are sugars that you should not avoid, specifically those in fruit, milk, and vegetables. While it may sound absurd to some people, I have been asked questions like “Should I avoid beets and carrots because of the sugar?” and “How many fresh cherries are safe to have?”. When it gets to the point we’re confused over fresh, healthy foods as potentially being harmful, we have a problem. Use common sense, if it’s a whole food and sugar is not added, it’s a green light. Read on to the next section for tips on choosing carbohydrates.
4. Rate your carb choices with nutrition.
- Make most of your sugar each day come from fruits. Whether that’s a fresh piece of fruit, frozen fruit over yogurt, or dried fruit with no sugar added, you will get some good nutrition along with some “quick energy” sugars. (I call them quick energy because they don’t need much digestion and the body can use them quickly). Ballpark, I think people should have 2-3 fruits a day to meet fiber and vitamin/mineral needs.
- Allow fat-free milk or yogurt. These dairy foods will provide some carbohydrates from the natural sugar lactose found in milk. Watch the yogurts to make sure the saturated fat is “0” and make sure there isn’t too much added sugar. Some yogurts have 30 grams of sugar, which hardly makes it a health food. I usually do fat-free Greek yogurts and add my own fresh or frozen (thawed) fruit. Two to three servings of dairy will do it for you. Make steel cut oatmeal with fat-free milk and fruit in the morning.
- Include some “starchy” carbs. I like using beans in everything from salads to breakfast burritos to vegetarian chili with carrots, turnips, tomato, and red pepper. Have salmon and black bean tacos with cabbage and wheat tortilla at lunch, and for dinner enjoy a hearty soup (think chunky potato, butternut squash) and salad combo. Don’t forget that protein on the salad.
Bottom line, carbs are the energy nutrient. Choose carbs for their health and nutrition quality. Hold it on the packaged and processed stuff… anything from potato chips to pretzels to the no-brainers of candy, desserts, and soda. You’ll love the energy boost when you actually fuel yourself with healthy food.