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What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates or “carbs” make up about 2% of our body. They are a combination of sugar, starch, and fiber and mainly come from plant-based sources. Sugars and starches can come in many different forms, you’ve probably heard already about simple and complex carbohydrates, but in the end our body breaks them all down into glucose. Glucose is the simplest form of sugar and the main source of energy for our cells. Fiber comes from the portion of a plant which we cannot breakdown during digestion, but is extremely helpful for our body to remove waste.
Why do I need carbohydrates in my diet?
Carbs are having their moment in the media right now with a lot of people touting low-carb diets and trying to cut out carbs entirely. While carbohydrates do turn into glucose in our body, we shouldn’t write off this important macronutrient just over the fear of sugar. In the proper form, carbs have a lot to offer to your body and they play a vital role in your health!
For example, carbohydrates…
- Provide a source of fuel for your brain and a quick source of energy for your muscles
- Help regulate your metabolism of proteins and fats
- Provide fiber, which is key in helping our bodies eliminate waste regularly
- Along with protein and fat help fight infections, promote growth of tissue like bones and skin, and help lubricate joints
- In their natural form, come packaged with loads of healthy vitamins and minerals
Being aware of your carbohydrate consumption and keeping an eye on not overdoing it is important in maintaining a healthy blood sugar balance and for your overall health.
Where can I get carbohydrates from?
The type of carbs you eat is extremely important. Keep to natural, unrefined forms – basically eat as close to nature as possible!
Carbs are mainly found in:
- Tubers & squash (sweet potatoes, pumpkin, parsnips, etc.)
- Grains and legumes
When getting your carbs on, put the majority of your focus on vegetables and fruit, and be careful with your portion size on the starchier sources like tubers/squash, grains, and legumes as it’s pretty easy to unintentionally overdo it here.
Grains and legumes can be difficult for some people to digest, so proper preparation can make all the difference. If you think you might have issues, soaked, sprouted, or fermented grains and legumes will be much easier on the digestive system and make their nutrients more available for your system to absorb.
In general, try and stay away from the highly processed and refined carbohydrates like white flour and sugar, white rice, fruit juices, pasta, chips, and especially anything containing corn sugar. These processed foods can cause a whole host of issues, like nutrient depletion and deficiency or gastro-intestinal imbalances.
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How much do I need?
When balancing your plate, aim for around 40% of the calories coming from carbohydrates (and 30% each of protein and fat). Since your focus should be on vegetable sources of carbs like leafy greens, then the majority of your plate should actually be holding the carbs! If you’re consuming the dense sources like tubers and squash or grains and legumes, then these will take up less space.
I love to cut the impact of a grain-based dish like pasta or oatmeal with a sneaky added vegetable. Zucchini noodles will add bulk to your pasta without overdoing the carbohydrate load, and shredded carrots can add some flavour and colour to your morning oats! These tricks are a great way to transition yourself and your family away from grain-based meals and towards a less processed, more colourful diet.
So if you are consuming around 1800 calories a day, then you would need to aim for roughly 180g of carbs (each gram is 4 calories). To give you an idea on how this could breakdown, here are some examples of the approximate amount of carbs per serving in a few items(1):
- Spinach, raw (85g / 3oz) – 3.0g of carbs
- Sweet potato, baked & mashed (125mL / ½ cup) – 24.3g of carbs
- Apple, raw with peel (140g / 5oz) – 21g of carbs
- Brown rice, cooked (105g / 3.7oz) – 32g of carbs
- Lentils (60mL / ¼ cup dry) – 28g of carbs (varies depending on type)
What about low-carb diets?
Low carb diets are when people severely restrict the share of carbohydrates in their diet which then increases the share of fat. One popular version of this is the ketogenic diet. For some people, this can be a highly successful way to eat and live! But for others… not so much. You need to pay attention to the cues that your body is giving you and decide what makes you feel your best.
Even if you do want to try out a low-carb approach, please remember to keep your veggies on your plate! A lot of vegetables have a fairly low-carb profile and offer heaps of important vitamins, minerals, and fibre.
Still have some lingering carb questions? Just drop me a comment!
(1) Netzer, Corrine T. The Complete Book of Food Counts. New York: Dell, 2012. Print.