Carb Questions Answered
Q: What are carbs?
A: Sugars, starches, and fiber
Q: What foods contain carbohydrates?
A: Sweeteners like sugar, maple syrup, and honey are 100% carbohydrate. Other foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains (flour, cereal, bread, pasta, rice, and more), pulses (beans and peas), milk and yogurt contain some carbohydrates, but aren't 100% carb.
Q: What foods don’t have carbs?
A: Many protein-rich foods such as meat, eggs, cheese, fish and seafood contain no carbohydrates at all. Other foods high in protein such as beans, seeds, and nuts contain carbohydrates, but not as much as the previously mentioned protein-rich foods. Foods such as oils and butter are 100% fat (no carbs).
Q: Are carbs bad for us?
A: No, not at all. But not all carbs are created equal. Many are loaded with essential nutrients to keep us healthy. Others, like table sugar, are “empty calories” and contain just sugar…and nothing else.
Q: What are some other “empty calorie” sugars?
A: Sugar (white or brown), syrups (maple, agave, brown rice), marshmallows, jello, and soda are 100% “empty calorie” sugar. Cakes, cookies, ice cream, and pies contain a lot of “empty calorie” sugar as well.
Q: Do we actually NEED carbs? I hear conflicting information.
A: Yes, our body need carbs for several reasons. One is that carbs turn into a sugar (glucose) that the body needs to stay alive. Our brain at just 2% of our body weight, requires 25% of all the calories we need in a day – and it only uses glucose. Red blood cells that carry oxygen also require glucose as do nerve cells.
Q: Can’t our body make glucose from body fat?
A: Don't we wish! No, we can’t convert body fat into glucose. The body CAN convert some proteins into glucose…hence why people on low carb diets don’t die. But, while proteins can be converted into glucose, it's not recommended to cut out all carbs. That's because protein-rich foods simply don’t have the same nutrients that carbs do.
Q: If our body requires “sugar”, why does everyone say it’s bad for us?
A: Any carbohydrate will turn into “sugar” (or glucose) in the body. So, it’s best to select carbs that are nutrient-rich, rather than empty calorie sugars. And, don’t forget, anything in excess is harmful.
Q: What are some other reasons we should eat carbs?
A: Many carbohydrates contain nutrients (such as B vitamins, vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber) that we just can’t find in most protein-rich foods.
Q: I’ve heard that some fibers aren’t digestible? Does that mean we shouldn’t eat them?
A: Non-digestible fiber helps to make us feel full. It's recommended we eat 25-30g of fiber daily for a number of reasons. Fiber intake promotes a healthy gut and can lower our risk of colon cancer. They also help to lower our blood glucose (blood sugar) and our bad cholesterol. Remember, most protein-rich foods contain no fiber.
Q: What are some examples of nutrient-rich carbs?
A: There are so many! Broccoli, banana, black beans, apple, squash, potatoes, pinto beans, kale, green leafy vegetables, cauliflower, whole grain bread, oatmeal, and so many more foods.
Q: I have diabetes. So, shouldn’t I avoid carbohydrates so my blood sugar (glucose) doesn’t get too high?
A: Your body requires glucose to fuel the brain and other essential parts of your body. If you eat low carb, the body will convert protein into glucose anyway - so you're still making glucose. Just choose carbohydrates that have a lower glycemic index. Keep in mind that the best dietary recommendation for people with type 2 diabetes is to keep your body weight within the normal range. So, listen to your hunger and stop when you're feeling satisfied (not full). Don't overeat.
Q: What’s a glycemic index?
A: That term refers to how fast carbs turn into glucose once you eat them. Some will bring up your blood glucose in minutes (think white bread and white rice) so they “spike” your blood glucose – giving you a quick fix followed by an energy crash. Others give you a slow and steady rise over a couple of hours (such as vegetables, beans, oatmeal).
Q: Other than an energy crash, is there any other reason to limit high glycemic foods?
A: Yes, for several reasons. That energy crash can make you feel hungrier – potentially causing you to overeat. Also, the pancreas responds to that rush of sugar by secreting lots of insulin. Overtime that could lead to insulin resistance – where your body doesn’t effectively use insulin, and then diabetes.
Q: Does that mean I have to give up sugar completely?
A: No. Just limit these foods to 5-10% of your total calories. So, if you’re eating 2000 calories, that’s 100-200 calories. So, if you want sugar in your morning coffee, you might want to skip the afternoon soda. Just be selective.
Q: Is there a good time to eat the high glycemic foods?
A: Actually there is! If you really like high glycemic foods, consume them right after intense exercise. That way the body will convert the “sugars” into “glycogen” which is stored glucose in your muscles. This will help you workout faster and harder at the next intense workout.
Q: So, can I lose weight while eating carbs?
A: Yes, of course. Losing weight is still about eating fewer calories than your body burns.
Q: How low do the low carb diets go?
A: It depends. It's recommended to eat at least 150g carbohydrates a day. While a healthy, well-balanced Mediterranean diet contains around 250 grams of carb, some low carb diets recommend limiting carbs to 100-150 grams. Others are eating less than 50 grams of carbs so they can reach “ketosis”.
Q: What’s ketosis?
A: Ketones are caused by the breakdown of fat. This happens with the body's source of glucose is limited. While parts of the body can convert from burning glucose to burning ketones, the brain prefers glucose. While some people recommend cutting carbs to increase ketones (which means the loss of body fat), it doesn't work that way. The reason people on low carb diets lose weight is that the choices are so limited that people tend to eat fewer calories. And, unfortunately, most people can’t stick with these low-calorie diets for very long (nor is it recommended to stay on forever). Then you’re back on the rollercoaster of weight gain/loss. Plus, they’re deficient in essential nutrients.
Q: People tell me that low carb diets are the only way they can lose weight.
A: Ya, I hear that too. If they are clients of mine, I'll ask...how many times have you lost weight on a low carb diet? They'll share story after story of huge losses - 20, 50, or more pounds. And, then followed by how they gained it all back (and then some) when they got off the program. They interpret this as "low carb is the only diet that works." I look at it differently - that the low carb approach isn't sustainable. And, then we work on finding a middle ground - a healthier approach, perhaps limiting carbs, designed for the long term. I help people make small shifts in the way they eat, sleep, move, and think so that they can be healthy and never be on a diet again.
Q: Nutrition labels are confusing. How can I read them?
A: You’re not alone. “Total carbohydrates” (often bolded) refers to sum total of what’s listed underneath – sugars, added sugars, and fiber.
Q: I’ve been avoiding milk because I’m reading on the label that a cup has 12g carbs – and they’re ALL “sugar”. Why are they adding sugar to my milk?
A: They’re not. It’s just that the carbohydrate in fruits and milk (and plain yogurt) are classified as “sugar” (because in the science world, they are short chain carbohydrates, known as sugar). So, if the ingredient list shows just milk – or just fruit, then all those “sugars” on the label are only the sugar found in nature.
Q: I don’t see “added sugar” on this label.
A: This is a new addition to the nutrition label (by law). And, not all companies have revised their labels yet.
Q: I’ve heard the term “net carb”. What does that mean?
A: Since fiber is not digested (it passes through into your stools), some people subtract that number from the total grams of carbs.
Q: How many carbs should I eat a day?
A: It depends on your calories. But, probably around 150-250 grams a day. If you’re active, you’ll need more.
Q: How much fiber should I be getting every day?
A: 25-30 grams
Q: I like bread. What should I look for?
A: White bread is very high glycemic. Look for a bread that has, as it’s first ingredient, 100% whole grain. Most of these tend to be higher in fiber, too. My favorite is Dave’s Killer Bread.
What carb questions do YOU have? Send me an email and let me know and I’ll update this article with your answers.
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Dr. Jo Lichten, PhD, RDN, CSP is an energy expert...for people. She works with organization to improve performance, health, and safety (and reduce burnout) through the science of energy management.