Consulted two experts for this story: Dr. Holly Lofton, director of the Medical Weight Management Program at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS, director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition.
1. First let’s talk about what carbs actually are.
Simply put, carbohydrates are sugars that our body uses for energy. Carbohydrates fuel everything we do, from thinking and other mental tasks to anything we do with our bodies — walking, twiddling our thumbs, or going hard in a workout. Eating carbs is like putting fuel into your body’s gas tank.
The carbs we eat are made usable as energy by the digestive system, which breaks down carbohydrates into glucose, the sugar in blood that powers the cells in our brains and bodies.
2. You should eat carbs (and be wary of advice to avoid to them).
St. Pierre and Lofton believe that one of the biggest misconceptions about carbs is that they’re inherently bad for you, particularly when it comes to weight management. St. Pierre says that not only are carbs important for giving you energy and keeping your body functioning properly — from keeping cortisol in check to helping to regulating the thyroid — but they’re not inherently unhealthy or even fattening.
In fact, Lofton says that carbs are important especially if you’re trying to keep your weight in check with diet and/or exercise, because avoiding carbs altogether can leave you without energy to work out or lead to cravings, which in turn results in bingeing on or overeating other foods.
3. If you’re interested in weight management, have most of your carbs earlier in the day.
Lofton recommends having the bulk of your carbs during the part of the day you’re most active (which for most people is in the morning and afternoon). She explains that carbs that don’t get used for energy are stored as glycogen (for later energy use) in the liver. Any excess dietary carbs that can’t be used for energy or saved in the liver are stored as fat under the skin or around the organs, which leads to more body fat, which is associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other poor health outcomes. But the more active you are, the more likely you are to use those dietary carbs and the glycogen in your liver, especially if you’re moving around and exercising, which means fewer carbs will be stored as fat. If you eat most of your carbs at night and promptly settle down to watch TV and then go to sleep, it’s unlikely that all the carbs you’ve eaten will get used.
4. And if you exercise, time your carbs around your workouts for optimal energy.
As we reported here having simple carbs before workouts will provide you with energy right away, and having them after workouts will get your recovery started ASAP.
5. There are two kinds of carbs: simple and complex.
Here’s the deal: A carb is considered simple when it’s made up of just one or two sugar molecules. Simple carbs can be easily digested and turned into energy quickly. This means that when you eat simple carbs you can expect a relatively quick boost of energy because your digestive system was able to quickly convert what you just ate into glucose.
Some simple carbs are:
• Table sugar
Complex carbs are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules and are often rich in fiber, which is indigestible, both of which make it take longer for complex carbs to be converted into glucose. This means that when you eat complex carbs, you’ll experience a more gradual and longer-lasting rise in blood sugar as your digestive system works harder and longer to convert what you just ate into glucose. You may also feel fuller for longer after eating complex carbs, thanks to their fiber content.
Some complex carbs are:
• Whole-grain breads and cereals
• Starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, pumpkin)
6. Carbohydrates should make up about half of your daily calories.
Lofton explains that because carbs are the body’s go-to source of fuel, you need to make sure you’re eating enough to fuel your activities. Generally the more active you are, the more carbs you’ll need to keep you going.
How many calories and carbs you should eat will vary from person to person depending on size, activity level, body composition goals (like losing fat or gaining muscle), etc. You can use online calculators to come up with a calorie goal as well as a number for your daily carb intake to figure out how to make sure carbs are 50% (or whatever amount you prefer) of your daily calories.
8. Identify complex carbs by checking the label for at least 5 grams of fiber per serving.
Here are some common high-fiber carbs:
• ¼ cup steel-cut oats (dry): 29 g carbs, 5 g fiber
• 1 medium pear: 28 g carbs, 6 g fiber
• 2 slices Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Whole Grain Bread: 30 g carbs, 6 g fiber
• 1 cup raspberries*: 15 g carbs, 8 g fiber
• ½ cup black beans: 21 g carbs, 8 g fiber
• ½ cup chickpeas: 23 g carbs, 6 g fiber
And there are a lot more examples of high-fiber foods here.
*Though fruits are simple carbs, some fruits have more fiber than others. Those with higher fiber will be digested more slowly.
9. The other super-important thing to know about carbs is how processed they are.
The less processed the carbohydrate, the better it is for you. So when it comes to corn, eating the vegetable off the cob is most nutritious (and least processed) option, while a corn tortilla is relatively more processed and less nutritious; and corn syrup is the most processed and least nutritious.
We’ll use grains as an example of why less-processed carbs are better for you. When grains start out they’re whole, meaning their component parts like the bran and the germ, which naturally contain nutrients and fiber, are intact. To make whole grains into a finer product with a longer shelf life, the bran and germ — the most valuable (nutrient-wise) parts — are removed. Now the grain is ready to be made into bread, crackers, cereals, pastries, etc., highly processed simple carbs with little nutritional value.
St. Pierre explains that in addition to lacking the nutrients and fiber present in whole grains, processed food products are more calorically dense and much easier to overeat.
Corn on the cob: 123 calories, 29 g carbs
7 Original Tostitos corn chips: 140 calories, 19 g carbs
The thing is, most people aren’t going to have more than one ear (OK, maybe two) of corn at a time. But for most of us, seven corn tortilla chips is only the very beginning of what we’ll snack on in a sitting.
10. To determine just how processed something is, simply look at the label.
Generally speaking, the more ingredients something has, the more processed it is, says St. Pierre. And Lofton says that when it comes to grain products, look for the word “whole.” This means that the grain has not been stripped of its nutrients for processing.
11. Beware of anything that is “enriched” with fiber and vitamins.
Some processed foods boast lots of fiber and nutrients per serving, but that’s because after they were stripped during the refinement process, other ones were added back in to make the product seem healthier. But the nutrients that are added back in are not as high quality nor are they processed as well by the body, says Lofton.
12. If you don’t want to deal with running the numbers when it comes to carbs and fiber, you can guesstimate.
St. Pierre explains Precision Nutrition’s approach to explaining portions, and it’s pretty damn simple: Measure your carb intake with your cupped hand. Basically, men should have two cupped-hand sized portion of carbs with most meals and women should have one. The cupped-hand method is convenient in its portability and its validity — larger people, whose energy needs will probably be higher, have bigger hands, so their cupped portions will be bigger.
Of course everyone’s needs are different — a small percentage of people function well with less or more carbs — and will vary based on a bunch of factors.
13. Whatever you do, don’t go HAM trying to eat ONLY the “best” carbs all the freaking time.
Try eating quality (high-fiber, minimally processed, complex) carbs about 80% of the time, says St. Pierre. For most people’s goals of good health, weight management, feeling good, and exercising regularly, obsessing about getting it just right all the time won’t really benefit one’s health or body composition (also it might drive you bananas).
And you don’t have to go all in; if you can swap in Cheerios or even Honey Nut Cheerios for Frosted Flakes, that’s a great start, says St. Pierre. And instead of swearing off bread for life, what about trying out a whole-grain bread with more fiber and nutrients in place of, say, Wonderbread?