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Carb Confusion

There's been a lot of press about carbohydrates in recent years, mostly negative, and it's created a lot of confusion. Let's look at the facts.

NOTE: None of the following should substitute for medical advice. If you have underlying medical conditions, or any concerns at all, speak to your health care provider.

Carbohydrates are all about energy. They're our primary source for energy, and the amount and quality we consume have a big impact on how we feel. Besides physical fatigue, too little can have a negative effect on our ability to feel satiated, exercise and recover, our mood, and our cognition. Too much can put energy levels on a rollercoaster of spikes and crashes and make you uncomfortably full.

Carbohydrates are important for health and weight loss because they:

  • Help you feel satisfied at meals, so you're not feeling "snacky" after a meal

  • Help you think clearly and quickly, which supports making better food choices

  • Help you maintain steady energy throughout the day, so you're don't want to hit the nearest coffee shop mid-afternoon

  • Help maintain energy throughout your workouts and support your recovery, to support consistent physical activity

Getting Smart About Carbs

Carbohydrates come in a variety of forms, and some are better for your health and waistline than others. No carb source is "bad", it's just a carbohydrate. Be aware, however, that labels like "whole grain" are often misleading. Food companies are allowed to use this label, even if whole wheat isn't the first or main grain in the ingredients. This is especially true for breads, cereals, and crackers. Read the ingredient list. Enriched wheat flour (processed to strip out vitamins and minerals to make the bread softer and more shelf stable) is not the same as 100% whole wheat flour. Check for other ingredients, like molasses (often added to make the product look more brown, i.e., looks like a whole wheat product), corn syrup and other sugars, as well as additives and preservatives.

A good guideline is, the less processed, the better it is for you. Rather than focus on what you should be cutting out, start where you're at, and add some better carbs to your day. The chart below is a great place to see where you are on your own spectrum of carb intake.

Graphic courtesy of Precision Nutrition

How many carbs do we need?

It varies from person to person, but begin by using this guideline:

Graphic courtesy of Precision Nutrition

For Women: ~ 1 cupped handful of carbs/meal

For Men: ~ 2 cupped handfuls of carbs/meal

This is a starting point. The right amount will depend on your body type, activity level, and body composition goals. If you're trying to lose weight, avoid having too many calorie dense carbs by eating slowly and paying attention to how full you feel (details on eating slowly can be found in the Jan 2021 issue of my monthly guide to healthy eating. Email me if you'd like a copy.) Finding the right amount requires experimenting and assessing, because every person is different.

Use your knowledge to support healthy choices. Read labels for packaged carbs. Move toward less processed carbs, more often, to improve your nutrition and sustain your energy without the spikes and crashes that more refined carbs create. Start where you are and focus on adding more quality (relative to where you are today) carbs, then pay attention to what portions sizes work for you and your goals.

Do you have a friend who's confused about carbs? Share this article with them by using one of icons below. If someone shared this link with you, and you'd like to receive my monthly guide to healthy eating, sign up at the bottom of the page. If you missed a previous month or more, just email me at and I'll send them to you.

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