The recommended dietary allowance of carbohydrates ranges between 45-65% of daily calories. For those that are younger, growing and very physically active; normally, can go with a higher carbohydrate composition for their calories. Someone with diabetes (not taking insulin), insulin resistance or those trying to lose body fat, the lower end may be a better goal. Meeting with a dietitian is always helpful for you to know just how much is right for you that will allow you to reach your goals. You always need to check with your health care provider first in case medications may need to be adjusted according to your meal plan.
There are benefits and important functions of carbohydrates. For instance, glucose from carbohydrates is the most efficient source of energy for the brain. Thinking, learning and memory building are all reliant on glucose consumption, and your body needs 100 grams of carbohydrates to function efficiently per day. That’s just 5 servings of carbs; such as a 1 slice whole grain toast, 1 piece of fresh fruit, 1 cup of Greek yogurt and 1/2 cup sweet potato and quinoa spaced throughout the day with various meals and snacks.
Not all carbohydrate food sources are the best though. Here are the top options, in addition to the examples listed above:
- Fruits, for example, while a more simple-type of carbohydrate or sugar source, provide fiber in the skin with hydration, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. To keep these sugars in check within a meal plan, it’s important to keep portions in mind. In general, 1 cup of your favorite seasonal, fresh or frozen fruit is a realistic serving. I always recommend pairing fruit with a protein or healthy fat sources (such as chicken or tuna salad, hard boiled eggs or nut butter).
- More complex carbohydrates like starchy vegetables (corn, peas, potatoes, winter squashes), whole grains and legumes also provide a rich source of fiber to help prevent chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and colon cancer, just to name a few whole-body benefits. They do not save us any calories or carbohydrates when replacing the enriched flours though. So, again, portions are key. Roughly ½ cup is a healthy serving that can be consumed per meal.
- Dairy such as milk and yogurt are also simple types of sugars, but they can provide a plentiful supply of calcium, probiotics, protein and potassium. Choosing options like plain Greek yogurt, plain soy milk, and 1% or fat free milk are all good examples of healthier dairy options. My favorite go-to is plain Greek yogurt, as it has about 3 times more protein than regular yogurt and twice as much protein than regular milk. Plus, it has the gut-healthy probiotics as well as bone and teeth-strengthening calcium.
Added sugars are plentiful in our food supply from items like bars, breads, yogurt, crackers and I could go on and on. Even though you can find better-for-you options, you still want to look for as little sugars as possible (this will be a bit easier when the food labels are changed to include added sugars) as well as choosing 100% whole grains.
Processed foods from crackers, cereal, chips, etc. are among some of the more convenient grab-n-go sought after items that many people choose just because they are easier on our stressed, tired and overworked bodies. Knowing which products are the best options is key to getting the whole grain and fiber benefits, while still keeping it easy for yourself.
Deceitful marketing plays a big role in the nutrition misinformation that’s widely available. Just because a package’s label shouts “whole grain” to the consumer does not mean the product is truly 100% whole grains. Often times it’ s made with some whole grains, but not all! So while it’s better than the originally completely refined products, it’s still not the best option. On the ingredients list, make sure you only see “whole wheat flour” or brown rice flour rather than enriched, bleached, unbleached, bromated, wheat flour, rice flour, etc. And, be careful of “multi grains” that contain whole wheat flour and enriched flours.
Tips & Tricks
- For those trying to lose weight, aim to limit your portion and frequency of nutrient rich carbohydrates to just one serving each time you eat. This way you’ll be getting all the great benefits of the healthy carbs, but keep hunger and extra calories at bay.
- Pair with lean protein and/or healthy fat at each meal and snack for longer periods of energy and satiety after meals.
- Save fruits as your snacks, since they are nutritious, portable and will keep whole grains, legumes or starchy veggies as options with meals.
- At meals, choose between a starchy vegetable OR a whole grain with your meal. Think potatoes or peas with meatloaf, corn or potatoes with your grilled protein, or pasta orbread with your spaghetti dinner. Then, of course, fill half your plate with the non-starchy vegetables.