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Macronutrients 1 of 3: Carbohydrates

Every food you eat is a combination of three macronutrients. They are carbohydrates, protein and fat. This article is the first in a three-part series explaining precisely what those macronutrients do and how much of each you should include in your daily diet. Following are the most common questions and answers people have about carbohydrates.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates (carbs) are your body's preferred source of fuel. They provide most of the energy we need on a daily basis for little things like heartbeat, digestion and breathing.

How does my body turn carbs into energy?

Your body breaks all carbs down to sugar, or glucose, which then fuels your cells. The speed that foods break down is represented on a scale called the glycemic index.

High Glycemic Index Carbohydrates have little or no fiber, break down rapidly and are quickly converted to energy.

Low Glycemic Index Carbohydrates are trapped in fiber, take much longer to break down and are converted much more slowly to energy.

If you're looking for a quick burst of energy, eat foods higher on the glycemic index. If you want more sustained energy, choose low glycemic index foods.

Are there different types of carbs?

On a fundamental level, carbs can be divided into two categories: Simple Carbs and Complex Carbs.

Simple Carbs are two molecule sugars that act to provide quick energy when your body digests them. A simple carb provides fuel for your body for 30 to 60 minutes.
Examples include: Bananas, French Fries, Honey, Potatoes, Soft Drinks, Sugar (Brown, Raw or White), White Bread, White Pasta and White Rice.
Complex Carbs are long chains of glucose that provide a slow release of energy when digested. A complex carb provides fuel for your body for 3 to 4 hours.
Examples include: Bulgar, Barley, Beans, Bran, Brown Rice, Couscous, Legumes, Oats, Non-starchy Vegetables, Whole Fruits, Whole Grain Breakfast Cereals, Whole Wheat and Yams.
Green - Best Choice | Yellow - Proceed with Caution | Red - Avoid

What are "Net Carbs" or "Net Atkins Count"?

A marketing gimmick. The premise of many low carb diets is that if you don't have easily metabolized carbohydrates available, your body will use stored fats for energy. Foods with low "Net Carb" or "Net Atkins Count" are supposedly acceptable, even if their overall carb count is higher, because the carbs come from artificial sweeteners and fiber. Theoretically, the fiber will help you feel "full" longer, stopping you from overeating.

Research does not back up the claims. In addition, there is no Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation of the term "Net Carb" or "Net Atkins Count" to verify a product's claim. If you're trying to lose weight, you should pay more attention to the total calories than any claims of "Net Carbs" or "Net Atkins Count."

How many total carbs should I take in every day?

There is no United States Recommended Daily Amount, but the American Heart Association recommends that you take in 50 - 60% of your daily calories as carbohydrates. To calculate how many grams of carbs you should eat, use the following formula.

Total Calories x Percentage of Carbs you should eat. Take the answer and divide it by 4.

If you're supposed to eat 2,000 calories a day and 50% carbs, here's how many carbs you should eat.

2,000 x 50% = 1,000

1,000 / 4 = 250 grams of carbohydrates.

What should I do now?

Use this information to calculate how many carbs you should take in every day. Look for foods that are higher in fiber and choose complex carbs over simple ones to give your body sustained energy.

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