I’ve spent years trying to learn how to eat healthily, but recently I realized that I’d been depending on others to tell me what that meant, rather than figuring it out for myself. I relied on the latest diet craze, or my doctor to tell me how much of this and how much of that I should eat. I even went to a nutritionist and expected her to be able to solve all my problems.
But none of them knew it all. None of them could answer all my questions or help me lose weight in an easy and simple way. They were all focused on their own area of interest. My cardiologist focused on what affected the heart. My nutritionist focused on diabetics and how to lower your blood sugar through diet.
For an author to be able to sell a new diet book to a publisher, they must come up with a new idea – a new way to look at getting healthy through food. So, each diet book I bought tried to convince me that if I simply followed their plan, I would lose weight and be healthy.
Yes, I learned something from each of these people, but none of them was really trying to teach me how to eat healthily. They just wanted me to follow their formula, and all my problems would be solved. Perhaps that works for some people, but It didn’t work for me.
In all that time, not one of those health professionals or diet books mentioned the word macronutrients.
“Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are macronutrients. We require them in relatively large amounts for normal function and good health. These are also energy-yielding nutrients, meaning these nutrients provide calories.” (Macronutrients, 2017)
Why is it important to understand what macronutrients are? It’s because knowing that my body requires relatively large amounts of all three macronutrients changed the way I defined healthy eating. We need fat, carbohydrates, and protein in our diet – we can’t eliminate any of them and be healthy.
None of the people I had depended on in the past ever told me this. They were only focused on convincing me to reduce the fat in my diet, or the carbs, or even the protein. I finally reached a point, where I asked what they expected me to eat if I was supposed to be on a low-fat, low-carb, low-protein diet? Even grass is a carb.
That’s when I decided I had to figure it out for myself. I need to know exactly what each of these macronutrients do to benefit my body and how much of each is needed daily. Today, I’m learning about carbohydrates.
So, what do carbs do for our body?
“Carbs are fuel. Glucose is the primary fuel for most of your cells and is the preferred energy for the brain and nervous system, the red blood cells and the placenta and fetus. Once glucose enters the cell, a series of metabolic reactions convert it to carbon dioxide, water and ATP (Adenosine Tri-Phosphate), the energy currency of the cell. If you have more available glucose than your body needs for energy, you will store glucose as glycogen (glycogenesis) in your liver and skeletal muscle. When your blood glucose drops, as it does when you’re sleeping or fasting, the liver will break down glycogen (glycogenolysis) and release glucose into your blood. Muscle glycogen fuels your activity. The body can store just a limited amount of glucose, so when the glycogen stores are full, extra glucose is stored as fat and can be used as energy when needed.
“Carbs spare protein. If you go without eating for an extended period or simply consume too little carbohydrate, your glycogen stores will quickly deplete. Your body will grab protein from your diet (if available), skeletal muscles and organs and convert its amino acids into glucose (gluconeogenesis) for energy and to maintain normal blood glucose levels. This can cause muscle loss, problems with immunity and other functions of proteins in the body. That’s how critical it is to maintain normal blood glucose levels to feed parts of your body and your brain.
“Carbs prevent ketosis. Even when fat is used for fuel, the cells need a bit of carbohydrate to completely break it down. Otherwise, the liver produces ketone bodies, which can eventually build up to unsafe levels in the blood causing a condition called ketosis. If you ever noticed the smell of acetone or nail polish remover on the breath of a low-carb dieter, you have smelled the effects of ketosis. Ketosis can also cause the blood to become too acidic and the body to become dehydrated.” (Macronutrients, 2017)
Carbohydrates also provide us with dietary fiber that allows our intestines to work more efficiently. In addition, certain types of fiber may help to lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
So, carbohydrates are good for us. But, with limited storage capacity, it is also important that we don’t eat too many or we’ll get fat.
“So how does pasta end up on your hips when too many carbs pass your lips? Your cells budget energy very carefully. They do not store more than they need right now. Any glucose the cell does not need for its daily work is converted to glycogen (animal starch) and tucked away as stored energy in your liver and muscles.
“Your body can pack about 400 grams (14 ounces) of glycogen into liver and muscle cells. A gram of carbohydrates — including glucose — has four calories. If you add up all the glucose stored in glycogen to the small amount of glucose in your cells and blood, it equals about 1,800 calories of energy.
“If your diet provides more carbohydrates than you need to produce this amount of stored calories in the form of glucose and glycogen in your cells, blood, muscles, and liver, the excess will be converted to fat. And that’s how your pasta ends up on your hips.” (Dummies.com)
The amount of carbohydrates we need each day is unique to each of us. Our weight, our age, our medical health, our level of physical activity all affect how many carbohydrates we need. Athletes need many more carbohydrates to fuel their active life style than a person who is sedentary, and a person with diabetics must carefully balance them throughout the day, so their blood sugar doesn’t get too high.
“The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates for children and adults is 130 grams and is based on the average minimum amount of glucose used by the brain.1 The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for carbohydrates is 45-65%.” (Macronutrients, 2017)
One gram of carbohydrate is equal to four calories. That means that if you eat 2000 calories a day, you should be eating 900 – 1300 of those calories in carbohydrates. But, before you start celebrating with doughnuts, think again. The quality of those calories is important.
“What’s most important is the type of carbohydrate you choose to eat because some sources are healthier than others. The amount of carbohydrate in the diet – high or low – is less important than the type of carbohydrate in the diet. For example, healthy, whole grains such as whole wheat bread, rye, barley and quinoa are better choices than highly refined white bread or French fries.
“Many people are confused about carbohydrates, but keep in mind that it’s more important to eat carbohydrates from healthy foods than to follow a strict diet limiting or counting the number of grams of carbohydrates consumed.” (Harvard)
Many people only think of high-starch foods like potatoes or rice when the word carbohydrate is mentioned, but vegetables and fruit are carbohydrates as well. To be happy in life, we need the freedom to eat many different types of foods, including French fries occasionally, but we need to make those choices based on knowledge and not emotional whims. The difference in the quality of food becomes evident when we compare the nutritional information.
Let’s compare green beans, an apple, whole-grain pasta, and a small order of McDonald’s French fries.
Green Beans Apple Pasta French Fries
Amount 1 cup 1 cup 1 cup small order
Total Calories 43.8 cal 65 cal 174 cal 270 cal
Cal. From Fat 2.9 cal 0 cal 6.3 cal 100 cal
Total Fat 0.3g 0.2 g 0.8 g 11 g
Saturated Fat 0.1g 0 g 0.1 g 1.5 g
Total Carbs 9.8 g 17.6 g 37.2 g 29 g
Fiber 4 g 3 g 6.3 g 3 g
Sugar 1.9 g 13 g 1.1 g unknown
Protein 2.4 g 3 g 7.5 g 3 g
You can tell the difference in the quality of the foods listed above just by looking at the numbers, and we haven’t even mentioned the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that each of them contain. That serving of green beans alone would give you significant portions of your daily RDA for Vitamin C (20%), Vitamin A (17%), and Vitamin K (25%), plus 18% of your daily manganese requirement.
If you consume around 1600 calories in a regular day, 720-1,040 calories of that should be from carbs. If you're trying to limit carbs to 130g daily, and you eat a cup of pasta, you have consumed approximately 29% of your carbs for the day. A small order of McDonald’s French Fries is 22% and heaven forbid that you have a bad day and order a LARGE order of French Fries (510 calories, 66g carbs), because that would be 51% of your carbs for the day.
But, it’s not as simple as just only eating 130 carbohydrates per day. Based on the carbohydrate counting method used by many diabetics, a serving of carbohydrates should be approximately 80 calories, 15 grams of carbs, and zero grams of fat. Many of them target 45 to 60 grams of carbs for a meal and 15 to 30 grams of carbohydrates for a snack. This allows them to spread their daily allotment of carbs throughout their day (130g = 8-9 servings), keeping their body fueled while avoiding blood sugar spikes.
“If you’d like to then translate the number of carbohydrate in a serving of food into ‘carbohydrate servings,’ you can take the total number of grams of carbohydrates and divide by 15.
“So, for instance, say you wanted to figure out how many carb servings are in a serving of lasagna. If you look up lasagna in the nutrient database, you’ll see that a 1 cup serving has 31 grams of carbohydrate. Divide by 15 and you get 2 (it’s okay to round up or down to the closest whole number). So that 1-cup serving of lasagna is worth two carbohydrate servings.” (Debra Manzella, 2017)
If you’re not diabetic or pre-diabetic, you may feel like distributing your carbohydrates throughout the day is a waste of time. But spreading your body’s fuel source across your meals and snacks is bound to help your energy levels stay more consistent, whether you’re diabetic or not.
I’m beginning to believe that non-starchy vegetables are the secret to good health. They offer our body energy, because they are carbs, but they don’t contain much starch or sugar, so they don’t negatively affect our blood sugar. When I try to eat six servings of vegetables and one or two servings of fruit in a day, I tend to lose weight, even without counting calories. Of course, fat and protein play a part in a healthy diet as well, but those are topics for another day.
I may not have given you all the answers you need about carbohydrates, but I hope I’ve at least inspired you to read the nutrition labels on your food before you put it in your mouth. Make conscious choices about your health. Choose to eat healthy most days, and I suspect you will have more energy, sleep better, and feel younger. But it’s your choice – only you can decide what eating healthy means for you. Good luck.
Debra Manzella, R. (2017, May 7). How Many Grams of Carbs Equals One Carbohydrate Choice? Retrieved from VeryWell: https://www.verywell.com/how-many-grams-of-carbs-equals-one-carbohydrate-choice-1087033
Dummies.com. (n.d.). Carbohydrates Do More Than Make Energy For Your Body. Retrieved from Dummies: http://www.dummies.com/health/nutrition/carbohydrates-do-more-than-make-energy-for-your-body/
Harvard. (n.d.). Carbohydrates. Retrieved from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/
Macronutrients. (2017, October 4). Retrieved from innerbody: http://www.innerbody.com/nutrition/macronutrients
Secret, F. (n.d.). McDonalds French Fries, Small. Retrieved from fatsecret: https://www.fatsecret.com/calories-nutrition/search?q=mcdonald's french fries small)
SelfNutritionData. (n.d.). Raw Apple, USDA. Retrieved from SelfNutritionData: http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/fruits-and-fruit-juices/1809/2