You'd be hard-pressed to find a woman watching her weight who doesn't think that carbs are evil. Between diet books like Grain Brain, Wheat Belly, and Cavewomen Don't Get Fat, it's no wonder we're not only terrified of croissants, we're also pretty sure we shouldn't be eating whole wheat anything either. But here's a secret the authors of those best sellers don't want you to know: You need carbs. In fact, eliminating them could harm your health and make you miss out on one of the most effective ways to stay slim. "Carbs should make up the majority of your diet, especially if you're active," says Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, a sports dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. We cut through the confusion so you can welcome back carbs with open (sculpted) arms.
What Are Carbs, Exactly?
They're nutrients that break down into glucose, your body's primary source of energy, and tons of foods contain them. "Carbs get a bad rap, but we need them to keep our brain working and our heart pumping," says Tanya Zuckerbrot, RD, the author of The Miracle Carb Diet.
Not all carbs are created equal, however. Naturally occurring sugars like fructose in fruit and lactose in dairy, sugars that are added to foods, and refined grains such as white rice are broken down quickly by your body. That means they provide almost-instant energy, but it doesn't last. And unless they're bundled with other nutrients, like the fiber in an apple or the protein in yogurt, they're basically empty calories. Other carbs, such as those found in whole grains, vegetables and legumes, take longer to digest, so you get a steadier supply of energy.
"Carbohydrate-rich foods like bread can be very high in calories," Pritchett says. "But many foods that contain carbs, such as fruits and vegetables, are low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals." Others fall somewhere in between: Whole grains contain a lot of nutrients and calories, while low-fat dairy has a medium amount of both. The bottom line: Cut down on added sugar and refined grains and consider all other carbs fair game.
If Carbs Are So Great, Why Is Everyone on a Low-Carb Diet?
Well, it's easy to overdo it on certain carbs. When you eat any type of carb, your body releases insulin to help you regulate an increase in blood sugar. But your system processes refined carbs so quickly that your blood sugar may dip, setting off an "eat more" signal in your brain.
The problem is, cutting out all carbs can hamper your weight-loss efforts, especially if you're active. "They're our primary energy source during exercise, and we can't get to the same level of intensity if we're carb depleted," Pritchett says. She recommends getting 45 to 65 percent of your calories from carbs, depending on how much cardio you do (aerobic activity requires more carbs than Pilates, for example). "You need 130 grams a day just for your brain to function, and active women should aim for between 200 and 300 grams," she explains.
Skimp on carbs and you'll also miss out on important nutrients, Zuckerbrot says. "Many of the vitamins and minerals we need come from fruits and vegetables, so cutting these out can lead to deficiencies." And your mood could suffer, too: A yearlong study found that people on a low-carb diet reported feeling angrier and more depressed than those on a low-fat diet did.
Why Do I Crave Carbs When I'm Tired or Sad?
They provide the quickest blood sugar boost, and your brain knows that, says Wendy Bazilian, RD, a coauthor of The SuperFoodsRx Diet. They also help your body produce the hormone serotonin, which balances your emotions and gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling (hey, macaroni and cheese is called comfort food for a reason).
The good news: Just because it's a craving doesn't mean it's bad. "High-fiber carbs can help increase serotonin without wrecking your diet," Zuckerbrot says. Add healthy fats and protein and they'll keep your blood sugar steady too.
Should I Eat Carbs Before My Workout?
To kill it at the gym, yes. Bazilian suggests eating half a piece of whole-grain toast or half a banana 45 to 60 minutes before your workout. "The idea is to provide your body with easily digestible energy far enough in advance that your workout isn't interrupted by the digestion process," she says. (There's no need to nosh if you're exercising for less than 60 minutes within a couple of hours after a meal and don't feel hungry.)
If you have a marathon or triathlon coming up, carb loading can help you store extra fuel and fluid in your muscles, explains Kim Larson, RD, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But don't pig out on pasta the night before or you'll feel weighed down during the main event. "You want to increase your carbohydrate intake by up to 100 grams a day — about an extra three servings — starting three days before the big event," Larson says.
Could I Become Addicted to Carbs?
It's possible. Recent research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that study subjects who drank a super-sugary milk shake showed increased activity in their nucleus accumbens, the "pleasure center" in the brain that regulates reward and addiction, four hours afterward. In other words, eating the wrong kind of carbs can become a vicious cycle, Bazilian explains, because your body gets a rush and then crashes, leaving you craving a fix.
Breaking the cycle can be hard, but it's definitely not impossible. Instead of trying to cut out treats entirely (as if!), combine something sweet, like dark chocolate chips or dried apricots, with something containing healthy protein and fats — think roasted almonds or Greek yogurt — to balance the sugar and slow digestion.
And while the occasional handful of pretzels or side of steamed white rice won't hurt you, make most of your grains whole.
Your Daily Bread
So what does the right amount of carbohydrates look like? Use this sample menu as a guide. It adds up to nearly 215 grams of carbs, about the ideal amount for an active woman who's taking in 1,800 calories a day.
Breakfast (43g carbs): Whole wheat English muffin with 1 slice Swiss cheese and 1 egg scrambled with 1 cup spinach + 1/2 grapefruit
Lunch (72g carbs): Turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and cucumber + 6 ounces low-fat yogurt with 1/2 small peach, diced
Snack (15g carbs): Apple + low-fat string cheese
Dinner (51g carbs): 2 fish tacos made with corn tortillas, shredded cabbage and mango salsa + small side black beans
Dessert (32g carbs): 1/2 cup light ice cream with 1/2 cup sliced strawberries
It's All Good — Really
No carb is off-limits, but some are better than others. Here's how much of each type you should be eating daily.
Starches and Whole Grains: 6 servings
- 1/2 cup corn or peas
- 1 potato
- 1/2 cup chickpeas or lentils
- 1/2 cup brown rice or whole-grain pasta
- 1 slice whole wheat bread
Vegetables: 3 to 5 servings
- 1/2 cup broccoli
- 1 cup leafy greens
- 12 baby carrots
Fruit: 3 to 4 servings
- 1 apple
- 1 banana
- 1 cup berries
Dairy: 2 to 3 servings
- 1 cup low-fat yogurt
- 1 cup skim milk
- 1 1/2 ounces reduced-fat cheddar
Refined grains: no more than 2 servings (count toward your starches)
- 1 cup white rice
- 1 flour tortilla
- 1 plain bagel
Treats: no more than 1 serving
- 2 squares dark chocolate
- 1 small cookie
Source: Kim Larson, RD
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, May 2014.