Throughout history, carbohydrates have played an integral role in physical and mental health, energy production, and of course, culture. We believe that carbs can and should be included in everyone’s diet without guilt or anxiety - in fact, once we really understand the benefits of carbs, we can wholeheartedly enjoy them. Here’s a guide you can use to help make informed decisions about carbs.
But first, why eat carbs?
Whether you are an athlete, business professional, child, or grandparent, carbs can provide the following benefits:
- Energy to get you through a workout or your day (1)
- Promotion of mental clarity (2)
- Proper fuel for the heart (3)
- Fiber to help promote optimal digestion (4)
So, how do I properly add carbs to my diet?
Simple or complex should be the main question you ask yourself when making a carb-related choice. While simple carbs will provide you with a quick burst of energy and a sense of enjoyment, you’ll want to bear in mind that blood sugar will spike and drop more quickly and these choices will be less nutrient dense than their complex counterparts.
Keep in mind that carbs should make up about 45-65% of your total daily calorie intake, which means that for a standard 2,000 calorie diet, that would equal about 900-1300 calories or 225-325 grams of carbs per day. To get a visual of what that looks like, according to the USDA nutrient database, that amount of carbs would leave you to eat 9 cups of cooked oatmeal or 7 medium sweet potatoes vs. 4 donuts or 4 standard size packs of Skittles throughout the day. However, not all of these choices are nutritionally equivalent. Instead of looking at total carbs alone on a nutrition facts label, look at what makes up that number. To help you, you can use the following equation: Total carbs - sugar = complex carbs.
While we’ve covered that sugars are simple carbs, you might want a little bit of specific practical information to take with you the next time you’re strolling down the cereal aisle and thinking about making “the right choice”. When you’re looking to cut down on simple carbs to avoid unnecessary sugars and the associated sugar crashes, try to avoid foods that contain the following ingredients: cane sugar, raw sugar, turbinado, brown sugar, glucose, fructose, lactose, sucrose, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate, or a brightly coloured cartoon character on the box. Just kidding, sort of.
Complex carbs, starches and fiber are more nutrient dense, keep blood sugar and energy levels more stable, and promote healthy digestion. One can safely assume that if it were real and not 100% fictional, the Elven Lembas bread that kept Frodo and Samwise going all the way to Mordor in Lord of the Rings would almost certainly be a complex carb. While your grocery store may not have access to whatever the elves were using, they probably have a lot of great whole grain options. Depending on where you live, the 100% Whole Grain Stamp might help you identify some of these options (5).
What's the "100% Whole Grain Stamp" and how can I use it?
If you pick up something like a package of bread, cereal, or crackers and it has a small yellow and black square that says "Whole Grain" with "100%" below, it can mean different things in different countries. In Canada, the stamp is very useful for those seeking healthy foods because this stamp means 100% of the ingredients are whole grain. However, in the US and most other countries, the 100% Whole Grain Stamp may not be as useful to healthy eaters since the requirements are lower and the stamp only certifies that 100% of the grain in the product is whole grain, therefore the product could still have plenty of sugar in it (6). Also, make note of terms such as “wheat” and “multi-grain” since these products may not be as healthy as they sound and could still just be made with refined rather than whole grain.
Even more tips for choosing carbs:
- Eat your fruits and veggies: Fruits and vegetables are a good source of carbohydrates and have a naturally high vitamin and mineral content. Try to choose fresh, frozen, or canned fruits and vegetables with no added sugars. Keep in mind that juices tend to be devoid of fiber and higher in added sugar. For example, if you’re trying to choose between apple juice and an apple, go with the actual apple.
- Watch added sugars: Monitoring added sugars in foods can be a good way to control your intake. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends no more than 10% of daily total calories come from free sugars (that includes added sugars) which would equate to about 50 grams per day on a 2,000 calorie diet (7). When looking at added sugars it is important to consider whether the sugar is natural or refined (no, high fructose corn syrup is not the same as maple syrup). The term natural sugars include sugars that occur naturally in foods and have added health benefits such as vitamins and antioxidants (maple syrup or honey) while refined sugars have been manufactured or refined in a lab. However, while natural sugars have added benefits, keep in mind it doesn’t mean that you can have as much of them as you want. As we have all learned from Cookie Monster’s recent reform, “Cookies are a sometimes food.” To identify, look closely at the nutrition facts label for the total sugars and glance at the ingredients list for the sources of the sugars in the product.
- Choose non-processed foods: Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables and are all going to provide you with that important dietary fiber and higher amounts of vitamins and minerals. Nature is full of these types of carbohydrates. For example, visualize a whole grain. It has three layers: the bran on the outside, the endosperm in the middle, and the germ on the inside. All of these layers together provide fiber, B and E-vitamins, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants. To identify complex carbohydrates, look for any of the following: whole grain, whole wheat, nuts, beans, fruits, vegetables, oats, peas, corn, or rice. Nature is smart. Choosing and consuming carbohydrates in their more natural form will give you the most nutritional value. That’s not to say you can’t enjoy your white rice, just have it on a limited basis.
We here at HOLOS believe that you can eat carbs and stay healthy, it just requires some foundational knowledge of how to best use them to your advantage. Through exploring the cultural relevance, recent controversy, and the science of carbs we hope our “War on Carbs” series has provided you with just that! Whether deciding to go for a complex or a simple carb snack, or checking to see if a product's nutrition label lives up to buzzwords on the packaging, it's up to you to make the call. Ultimately, you get to determine how, when and what kind of carbs to embrace, no one else. We hope that decision just got easier with our efforts to decode carbs.
Introducing: The War on Carbs Series
Read Part 1: Carbs, Culture, and You
Read Part 2: Digesting the Carb Controversy
Read Part 3: Do You Actually Need Carbs?
- Elia, M., Folmer, P., Goren, A., & Austin, S. (1988, June). Carbohydrate, fat, and protein metabolism in muscle and in the whole body after mixed meal ingestion. Metabolism, 37(6), 542-551. Pubmed. 10.1016/0026-0495(88)90169-2
- Kennedy, D. O., & Scholey, A. B. (2000). Glucose administration, heart rate and cognitive performance: effects of increasing mental effort. Psychopharmacology, 149(1), 63-71.
- Bilsborough, S. A., & Crowe, T. C. (2003). Low carbohydrate diets: what are the potential short and long term implications? Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 12(4), 396-404. http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/APJCN/12/4/396.pdf
- Lattimer, J. M., & Haub, M. D. (2010). Effects of Dietary Fiber and Its Components on Metabolic Health. Nutrients, 2(12), 1266-1289.
- Oldways Whole Grains Council (n.d.). Whole Grain Stamp. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from 100% Whole Grain Stamp
- Mozaffarian RS, Lee RM, Kennedy MA, Ludwig DS, Mozaffarian D, Gortmaker SL. Identifying whole grain foods: a comparison of different approaches for selecting more healthful whole grain products. Public Health Nutr. 2013 Dec;16(12):2255-64. doi: 10.1017/S1368980012005447. Epub 2013 Jan 4. PMID: 23286205
- World Health Organization (WHO). (2017). Reducing free sugar intake in children and adults. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from Reducing free sugars intake in children and adults