Determining how many carbs to eat can be one of the most confusing elements of nutrition. There is SO much varying information online about carbs.
WHAT ARE CARBS?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main macronutrients (along with fat and protein). We get all of our calories from these macronutrients. Carbohydrates can be found in a wide range of foods: Vegetables, fruit, beans, potatoes, dairy, seeds, grains, and processed foods made from these ingredients.
One reason carbs can be confusing is that there are different kinds of carbs (simple and processed carbs as well as complex carbs). Bread, pasta, and donuts fall under the category of refined or processed carbs. Refined carbs are highly processed, stripped of fibre, and most have added sugar.
Examples of refined carbs include white bread, cereal, pasta, cakes/sweets with added sugar.
The alternative to simple carbs is whole carbohydrates, which are mostly plant-based foods that contain fibre. They are also known as “complex” carbs because they are digested slowly and haven’t had the fibre removed. Examples are fruit, vegetables, grains, and potatoes.
WHY DO WE NEED CARBS?
Carbohydrates are broken down and turned into glucose to provide energy for cells in the form of ATP. Fat and protein can also do this, but the process is much faster with carbs. If you are an athlete or need to replenish energy stores quickly, carbs should be your go-to.
DO CARBS CAUSE FAT GAIN?
We gain fat when we eat more calories than we are burning. Carbs alone don’t cause this, but carbs can be part of the foods we tend to overeat (remember those refined and processed carbs). These types of carbs combined with a more sedentary lifestyle can be associated with excess body fat.
WHAT ABOUT TYPE 2 DIABETES?
Type 2 Diabetes is believed to be a result of excess body fat and a sedentary lifestyle. It occurs when the body is unable to respond properly to the hormone insulin, which is responsible for regulating blood glucose. Similar to fat gain, carbs don’t directly cause Type 2 Diabetes, however, diets high in refined grains and added sugar are linked with fat gain and they can contribute to problems with insulin.
HOW MANY CARBS SHOULD I EAT PER DAY?
It depends 🙂
Individual carb intake depends on multiple factors including what your goals are, activity levels, food preferences, age, and metabolic status.
Here are some general recommendations:
GOAL: FAT LOSS
Although it’s possible to lose body fat with a high-carb, low-fat diet, lower-carb (not 0 carbs) diets are very effective for producing short-term fat loss. As noted above, the specific number depends on individual factors, but most active people will be in a range of 100-300grams of carbs to drop fat. Sometimes we implement a carb-cycling for more active people, which is a strategy of having more carbs on training days and fewer carbs on recovery days.
Body type can factor into this as well. Some people who are naturally leaner but do not train in the gym very hard will still need more carbs (close to 3 grams of carbs per kg of body weight).
GOAL: MUSCLE GAIN
Those looking to build muscle and strength need a large portion of carbs. We would typically have them above the 3g/kg of carbs a day. We would push this range into 4-7 grams of carbs per kg of body weight.
WHAT ABOUT CARB TIMING?
Timing your carb intake is a more advanced strategy for achieving a particular performance or body composition goal. We typically recommend if someone is training (weights in the gym, runners, etc.), that we pair the majority of their carbs around their workouts to help fuel their activity and recover well.
We also like to make sure people have some carbs in the evening, as this is a time for most people where they might enjoy a bigger meal at dinner or a bedtime snack.
DOES MY AGE MATTER?
Unfortunately, it does for most of us! As growing kids, we could eat as many carbs as we wanted and not worry. As we get older, we need to pay more attention to what we put in our bodies. With aging, we can see a decrease in insulin sensitivity, which for some, can be a decrease in carbs.
We also get less active as we get older. Even if we are working out, going for walks and hikes on the weekend, most of us have sedentary desk jobs where we spend 7-9 hours per day sitting down.
Individual carb requirements will vary in older adults depending on their activity and non-exercise active levels during the day, as well as current body composition. In general, aim to get the majority of your carbs from quality, high-fibre sources like fruits, vegetables, legumes and portioned whole grains.
At the end of the day, your carb intake will depend on several factors, and it is important to understand how carbs work for your particular body and goals.
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