Nowadays, carbohydrates are viewed as the most controversial macronutrient, but they have long been a staple of the human diet and are the predominant source of calories for most people. Understanding the importance of carbohydrates, along with the different categories and how they function can help alleviate any confusion or fear surrounding them.
What are carbohydrates and what do they do for your body?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that make up the majority of calories the average person consumes. The other two are fats and proteins.
There are three main types of carbohydrates you are getting in the food you eat. They include:
- Sugar: simple carbohydrates, naturally occurring in fruit and milk or added sugars found in candy, desserts, soda, and ice cream
- Starch: complex carbohydrates found in and legumes, fruit, whole grains and vegetables
- Fiber: complex carbohydrate found in beans and legumes, fruit, whole grains, nuts and seeds and vegetables
When you eat carbohydrates, they are digested and broken down into smaller components called glucose. The body takes glucose and uses it to make energy for the body. Sugar breaks down quicker than starch, since sugar is composed of a more simple structure. We can’t digest fiber, but it is important in aiding proper digestion.
Carbohydrates play a critical function in how the body creates and stores energy. As a source of fuel, carbohydrates provide energy for the body, which can be stored for later use. Carbohydrates also play a role in building molecules like DNA, RNA and ATP.
How many carbohydrates do you need per day?
The short answer: it depends
Everyone has vastly different caloric and nutrient needs. It depends on a variety of factors such as age, gender, muscle mass, physical activity, height, weight, genetics, health conditions and preference.
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates is 130 grams per day, meaning you should not go below this amount every day. Along with this, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends getting 45-65 percent of your daily calories from carbohydrates. This would be about 225-325 grams of carbohydrates per day if you are eating 2000 calories.
As you can see, there is quite a bit of wiggle room in this range, so you can modify how many carbohydrates you eat based on your lifestyle. For example, if you are very active, you will likely need more carbohydrates than a sedentary person. The importance of carbohydrates depends on your specific situation.
Along with this, it’s important to consider preference. If you love fruits, grains and beans, you may be eating more carbohydrates than someone who dislikes these foods. And that’s okay! Personal preference is important because it makes sticking to a healthy lifestyle easier.
What are the best sources of carbohydrates?
It’s best to get a majority of your carbohydrates from nutrient dense, whole foods as opposed to foods higher in added sugars.
Some examples of good sources of carbohydrates include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Beans and legumes
- Starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, corn, peas
- Whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat bread and pasta, popcorn, whole corn tortillas
- Dairy products, excluding cheese (low in carbohydrates)
That being said, it’s okay to eat other sources of carbohydrates – just try your best to focus on the foods listed above since they supply a wide variety of nutrients and take longer to digest.
Is it ok to cut out carbohydrates?
With the rise of popular diets like keto, paleo and carnivore, you may think that carbohydrates aren’t necessary or even healthy. Let’s discuss this idea.
Technically, your body can survive without carbohydrates. In a process called ketosis, your body can utilize fat to produce ketone bodies, which can be used as energy.
Ketosis is the method of producing energy the body uses during bouts of starvation. The body can use it’s fat stores to produce energy, but it is not the preferred energy source.
By no means is keto a superior diet to one containing adequate carbohydrates. In fact, the ketogenic diet was created to help treat children with epilepsy, not for the general public or for weight loss purposes.
Along with this, the ketogenic diet (along with paleo and carnivore) are notoriously difficult to adhere to, especially since a majority of foods are prohibited. And the more difficult a diet is to adhere to, the more difficult it will be to lose weight, if that’s your goal.
In the end, choose a way of eating you enjoy and can stick to. If you love carbohydrates, then keto, paleo, or carnivore are likely not great choices for you. Someone can still be healthy while eating carbohydrates. And looking at the importance of carbohydrates, it’s an essential health choice to include in your everyday diet.
Final thoughts on the importance of carbohydrates
Not only are carbohydrates a great source of energy for the body, but they are delicious and provide a variety of health benefits. While you don’t need carbohydrates to survive, the body’s preferred source of energy is carbohydrates, so don’t fear them!
If you struggle with chronic dieting and/or binge eating, I have a few resources that can help. Click the links below to learn more: