When I say the word, “carbohydrate” you probably picture starchy foods like noodles, bread, rice and potatoes. And you’d be right. But you’d be just as right if fruits or vegetables popped into your head. And you’d still be right if you thought of sugar or honey or jam…or even a glass of milk. That’s because lots of foods supply carbohydrate – and it’s a good thing, too. Because when it comes to keeping your engine running, your body’s first choice of fuel isn’t fat or protein – its carbohydrate.
We get our carbs from a wide range of foods – but clearly some of them are healthier for us than others. That’s why you sometimes hear people refer to different carbs as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. “Good” carbohydrates are those that are the least processed – foods like whole fruits, vegetables, dairy products, beans and whole grains. Dairy products also fall in this category because foods like low-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese deliver carbohydrate to the body in the form of naturally-occurring sugars.
The other reason these carbs are “good” is that they provide more than just energy to the body. There are vitamins and minerals tagging along too – and in the case of fruits, vegetables, beans and grains, we also pick up some fibre.
On the other hand, the highly processed refined “bad” carbs – foods like sugars, pastries, white rice, and white flour breads, cereals, pasta and crackers – have little to offer the body beyond just calories. That’s why it’s best to steer towards the whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans to meet your carbohydrate needs.
How many carbohydrates do you need?
Sometimes people ask me how many carbohydrates they should eat every day. It’s not a simple question to answer. That’s because the amount of carbohydrate you need to eat depends, in large part, on how many calories you burn every day – but it also depends on how active you are. Generally speaking, it’s suggested that you aim to eat roughly 40% your daily calories from carbohydrate. But, if you do a lot of extensive exercise, you might need a bit more. Some people try a very low carb approach to weight loss, but it often backfires. When you cut your intake too far, you may not provide your body with enough carbohydrate to fuel your active lifestyle.
Keep in mind that you can easily eat through your carb budget without even realising if most of your carbs are supplied by less healthy foods like desserts, sodas, white bread, crackers and potato chips. So keep your eye on the carbohydrate prize – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and dairy products should be the major sources of carbohydrate in your diet.
Remember, our carb needs vary from person to person. If, for example, you do a lot of endurance exercise most days of the week, you may need a higher percentage of your daily calories from carbohydrate in order to get enough fuel for such a high level of activity.
Written by Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD. Susan is a paid consultant for Herbalife.