For some time now, carbohydrates have been demonized by the health and fitness industry.
Including carbohydrates in your diet can be incredibly beneficial to your health and well-being. In this post, we’ll cover:
- The benefits of carbohydrates
- The best sources of carbohydrates
- The amount of carbohydrates you should be eating
Benefits of Carbohydrates
- They are the body’s preferred energy source for activity—particularly for higher intensity activity. When working at higher intensities, the body uses carbohydrates as its main source of energy. When working at lower intensities, the body uses primarily fat for energy, but fat can only be efficiently used as fuel if enough carbohydrates are available.
- They are the primary fuel source for the brain and central nervous system. If enough carbohydrates are not consumed, this can affect a person’s mood, actions, and thinking ability.
- They are highly satiating. Your body has a natural craving for carbohydrates, so eating them not only satisfies those cravings, but also helps keep you fuller longer by adding bulk to the diet.
- They have a protein-sparing effect. For needed energy, your body will turn to the carbohydrates you consume and will save the protein you eat for tissue repair and growth to help build and maintain muscle (See: How Much Protein Do You Need?).
- They can be a great source of vitamins and minerals. Most fruits and vegetables are made up of primarily carbohydrates. Eating a wide variety of produce and including it with every meal will help you meet your vitamin and mineral requirements (thereby limiting your need to purchase supplements).
- They help improve digestion. Carbohydrates add bulk to the diet which helps push food along the digestive tract. This keeps the digestion process moving which helps prevent constipation.
- They help regulate blood glucose levels. Eating meals high in fiber-rich carbohydrates have been shown to regulate blood glucose for up to 5 hours.
- They help provide a good night’s sleep. Carbohydrates aid in the production of serotonin which helps provide a restful night’s sleep. They also help lower the stress hormone cortisol which can inhibit sleep if levels are too elevated in the evening.
The Best Sources of Carbohydrates
To take advantage of all these benefits, you must choose the right carbohydrate sources. Stay away from refined/processed carbohydrates (which often produce opposite effects of many of the benefits listed above) and choose whole, natural, unprocessed food sources instead. Some great choices include:
- Vegetables (including starchy vegetables like squash or potatoes)
- Grains (including white and brown rice, quinoa, oats)
- Wild Rice
- Beans and Legumes
The Amount of Carbohydrates You Should Be Eating
The typical carbohydrate recommendation is 45-65% of the day’s total caloric intake. My personal opinion is that this is a bit high for the typical American who spends most of their day seated and relatively inactive (inactivity = lesser need for energy). Even with 60 minutes of exercise each day, this does not make up for the other 23 hours of inactivity.
For a person with a desk job who works out regularly and has a relatively healthy diet, I would recommend starting with 45% of daily calories coming from carbohydrates and adjust up or down from there in 5% increments. If 45% is working well, try 40% (especially if you are trying to lose weight) and see how you feel. If any negatives are experienced and do not subside (trouble sleeping, brain fog, lack of energy), try increasing your carbohydrates by 5% increments until those negatives are reduced/eliminated. Keep in mind that if carbohydrates are raised, either proteins and/or fats will need to be reduced to maintain caloric balance. For a personalized recommendation of your total carbohydrate needs, speak to a registered dietician or nutrition coach to get you started.
Finally, carbohydrates do not cause weight gain in and of themselves. Excess calories do. If trying to lose weight, reducing carbohydrates is one of the easiest ways to do so. This is simply because most people eat too many carbohydrates thereby eating too many calories in their overall diet.
The information found on this blog is based on my own personal thoughts and opinions. I am not a doctor or registered dietician. Please be sure to consult your health care professional before starting or changing any fitness or nutrition program.
Henriques, Tim. NPTI’s Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training. United States: Human Kinetics, 2015.
NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training. 4th Ed., Edited by Micheal A. Clark, Brian G. Sutton, Scott C. Lucett. United States: National Academy of Sports Medicine, 2014.
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