by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.
Updated July 19, 2022
When I think carbohydrates, I default to bread, rice, pizza, pasta, etc. I don’t always think yogurt, grapes, green beans, strawberries, etc. So let’s get straight to the point on this one — not all carbs are bad! Carbs are one of the main macronutrients needed by your body, but are also the ones that bring up the most debate. One of the reasons controversy and confusion surround carbs is because the category is so broad. You will find sugar, starches, and fiber all in one family. Your body needs carbohydrates. With them your brain, muscles, and body systems would struggle to function.
This does not mean to fill up on sugary, processed foods. Successful integration of carbohydrates into a healthy lifestyle must center on whole carbs. This means carbs found in their most natural and unrefined form. Not only do these foods fit into a healthy lifestyle, but they are overflowing with other nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and vitamins.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of fuel, craved by the brain and muscles to supply energy. It is true that restricting carbohydrates can lead to weight loss, but it is not a long-term solution and can cause serious damage to the body. Many studies have proven that a long-term, low-carbohydrate diet shows no weight loss benefit after 3 – 6 months.
Your best bets for whole carbohydrates are found in fruits and vegetables. Consuming at least 8 servings of these nutritious gems provides the vitamins and minerals your body needs to function at its best. But you don’t have to stuff yourself with foods you aren’t too fond of, whole grains can also help you reach your goal. Look for a carb that is high in fiber and low in sugar. These carbs tend to be minimally processed, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.
Dairy products such as almond milk, rice milk, Greek yogurt, and cottage cheese provide a healthy dose of carbs while also packing a powerful protein punch. Some of these foods can be high in added sugar so it’s best to choose unsweetened versions. For example, 6 ounces of flavored Greek yogurt contains 28g of sugar whereas plain Greek yogurt contains only 14 grams. If you feel plain Greek yogurt is too bitter, add berries or a small amount of coconut sugar to the snack and stir. This way you get a touch of sweet while also being in control of the amount of sweetener added. “Superfoods” such as goji, cacao, chia, and flax are also a great source of carbs and can be added to many foods for a little boost.
Many processed carbs should be avoided. These foods are refined flour, sugar and white rice. While the list is underwhelming, when you really start to look at foods and their labels, you will find a large percentage of packaged foods include at least one of these ingredients. For example, white bread, white pastas, candy, and soda top the list of foods to avoid. Some research studies have linked these foods to an increased amount of inflammation in the body (ie: fibromyalgia, asthma, allergies, and arthritis), type II diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. It is best to completely eliminate these foods and focus on incorporating the whole carbs addressed above.
To have a completely balanced diet you want to incorporate the right number of carbs, protein, and fat for YOUR body. Getting too much of one or restricting another can lead to longer-term health consequences. One of the most common pitfalls I see with my clients is the over-restriction of carbs and high intake of protein. Macronutrients refer to carbs, fats, and protein – the three basic components of every diet.
Balanced carbs: As I’ve fully covered above. Whole grains + produce = GOOD. Sugary, processed, carbs = NO GOOD
Balanced protein: Don’t become protein obsessed! The typical American diet is more than adequate when it comes to protein. Instead of focusing on getting more and more and more protein, focus on high quality proteins.
Balanced fats: Good fats are your friends! For years it was thought that fats make you fat but we have since learned that good fats (omega-3s, unsaturated fats, etc.) help the body function optimally and we need them in our lives! Avoiding saturated fats from fried, highly processed foods is a good thing. Passing on the avocado, olive oil, and walnuts is not such a good thing.
While exact percentages can vary, daily macronutrient percentages are found in the following ranges*:
A note from the R.D. about macros: Figuring your calorie and macro levels can help get you started to a healthier lifestyle. As with much nutritional advice, I have often found that when I calculate a client’s initial numbers, we may have to go back and tweak things after 1 – 2 weeks if there’s been no progress. This can seem confusing and frustrating, but while these calculations are very well-researched, they are still averages and your body may just need a few more grams of fat and less carbs than the “average.” Therefore, it’s good to know where your information is coming from and to also work with a healthcare professional to make sure you are getting the foods that are right for you.
When I am creating a meal plan for the general population, I break it down to around 40 – 50% carbohydrates, including all the “good carbs” mentioned above. Plus 20 – 25% fat, and 25% protein. This may not be the perfect composition for you and your body, but I have found that most of my clients find success with this mix. My advice is finding what works for you, your family and what helps you become the healthiest you can be.