Is anything more vilified in our diet culture than…dun dun dun…carbs? Every time you feel your clothes getting a bit too tight you automatically think “I need to go easy on the carbs.”
But is that even true? What are the real facts about carbs…are they actually bad for you?
Do they make you tired?
Are they going to make you gain weight?
In this blog post, you’ll get the full-fiber scoop on carbs. What are they, what do they do for your body, how many do you need in a day and how do you choose the best ones to support your nutrition goals, your health, and your satisfaction?
If this is your first time here – welcome! I’m Melissa Landry, Registered Dietitian, and food freedom expert. I help women in larger bodies to find peace with their bodies, eating, and food – including carbs.
Let’s start at the beginning: what are carbohydrates, exactly?
what are carbs?
Carbohydrates – carbs for short – are one of three macronutrients; the other two are protein and fats. Carbs are your body’s main source of fuel (aka energy).
Carbs are a big group of nutrients with several different players (1). Carbs include:
- Starches (aka “complex carbs”)
As we digest complex carbs, we break them down into individual sugars. Why sugars? Because those are small enough to be absorbed into your cells and to be used for energy. These sugars aren’t “bad”, they’re simply the right size to fit through the door.
And get this: our brain, muscles, and red blood cells actually prefer carbs for fuel.
So…what counts as a carb? Let’s explore those next.
what are examples of carbohydrates?
Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my! What counts as a carb? Many, many foods! And unlike lions, tigers, or bears: we don’t need to fear carbs (more on that in a bit).
Carbs are found in
- Whole and refined grains
- Pasta and rice
- Bread and tortillas
- Beans, peas, and lentils
- Fruits and juice
- Milk and yogurt
Carbs are also found in:
- Baked goods
- Candy and sweets
- Sweet drinks
Carbs are not found in foods that are all fat or all protein, such as:
- Chicken, steak, and pork
- Olive oil and butter
- Coconut oil
However, things like fried chicken that is breaded do have carbs, because of the breading.
With so much fear about carbohydrates, one important fact to know is the functions of carbs for maintaining our health and energy.
what do carbohydrates do?
So….do we even need carbs?
If you’d like to have the energy to dance around the kitchen, puzzle through a Wordle, enjoy an evening stroll, or (ahem) be able to have regular #2s, then yes: carbs are needed.
In fact: our bodies prefer carbs for energy over protein or fats.
By that statement alone you can see how important they are. It’s why there are so many options and it’s why culinary geniuses of the past found ways to make them, keep and store them – bread, croissants, tortillas — many different cultures found ways to keep precious carbs during long winters and droughts because we need them to survive and thrive.
And yes, we found ways to make carbs more pleasurable.
Food is first and foremost about fuel. But eating is not just about that: we aren’t cars or robots. We’re alive! And it’s okay to enjoy it.
Carbohydrates have brought human beings love, nostalgia, tradition, and even a chance at testing our scientific ability. Seriously — Google what goes into making the perfect fudge or macaroons. Precise conditions and a lot of trial and error for the joy of these foods!
But back to the science: if you don’t eat enough carbs your body goes on high alert. You will start to feel sluggish, and fatigued, you may alert your “starvation center” and become preoccupied with food, or even binge.
This is why if you’ve ever been on an extreme low carb diet, (I see you, Keto) you probably had some unpleasant symptoms, including (but not limited to) losing your period, foggy brain/thinking, constipation, not to mention being a big ole grouch. #hangry, amiright?
You also are missing the mark on a lot of essential nutrients when you cut carbs. For example, folate, a key nutrient for women who are trying to become pregnant or are pregnant, and fiber which helps you have regular poops.
Do I have you convinced? Let’s talk about amounts.
how many carbs should I eat a day?
How much is enough? Too much?
The answer may surprise you, but there are no hard and fast rules for how many carbs you need. Research has been done to identify the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) for carbohydrates. (Psst – the RDA is consensus by many smart peeps. The amounts they settled on, have been deemed to be at the right levels to promote health and prevent disease for most in our population (2). The idea is – get enough, and not too little).
For most healthy adults, the RDA for carbs is…drumroll please…130 grams per day.
Heads up, this is the minimum amount of carbs for optimal brain function. However, we’re not just using our brains! 130 grams? This is an absolute bare minimum, and most people do not feel satisfied with this amount. That’s why when I work with clients, I make sure they are finding ways to incorporate enough carbs – at least 130 grams per day – but actually working up to a level that their body feels most satisfied with.
We know it’s enough carbs when:
- Poops are regular
- Hunger is predictable and pleasant
- They feel energized and well
- They feel satisfied
- They see a good variety of intake (for example – they include multiple food groups, not just sticking with one “safe ” carb like fruits and vegetables, and then avoiding other carbs like bread.)
Depending on your age, lifestyle, medical status, and genetics, your carb intake may differ from others and that’s okay.
One thing I don’t recommend is trying to force yourself into a diet like keto or low carb – especially if you do not feel well! These diets are extremes that represent very few of our needs.
From my time as a former weight loss research dietitian, I can also tell you low carb diets are often supported by male researchers who have different biological needs than women who require carbohydrates in different ways across their life cycle. Keto being healthy for all of us is one big myth I’d love to see go.
And another myth – white carbs being “less-than”. Let’s bust that myth next.
are white carbs bad?
Nope! They are just different.
White carbs simply mean they are refined; brown rice can be refined into white rice, and whole wheat can be refined to white flour.
Refined foods came to be as a way to extend the shelf life of the grain. It also created an easier-to-use, more edible product to feed many people. As our food system evolved, it became easier to create refined food, and offer many refined foods in the supply. This is different from the past, but it is not bad.
Whole grains do offer nutrition, but that doesn’t mean that you should cut out white carbs entirely. When you choose carbohydrates regularly and give yourself full permission for variety, your body will guide you to eat the right amount of refined carbohydrates for you.
The exception to this may be if you have a diagnosis that makes it harder for you to utilize carbohydrates, as with diabetes, PCOS, or if you experience constipation. For these exceptions, white carbs are STILL allowed, you just may need a different strategy for consuming them (and a registered dietitian can help you do that).
My clients do this often as we blend their health values with how they hope to feel in their bodies in order to design the right way of eating for them.
Storytime: I used to work for a research group that was legit obsessed with low-carb diets. I convinced myself that I no longer liked bread and that I didn’t need it. Then we took a honeymoon to Italy…and I ate bread. A lot of it. It was wonderful. Spoiler alert: I VERY MUCH LIKE BREAD.
That was 7 years ago and I haven’t stopped eating bread since. Not only do I have more energy than ever (BECAUSE I AM EATING!) I have so much more joy from my food. This welcoming of white carbs does not mean I can’t also eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. I can and I do.
As an Intuitive Eating dietitian, I teach my clients to find their white carb sweet spot – mentally and physically – because all foods fit. And Intuitive Eating helps you to find your best eating patterns; patterns that energize your body and offer you joy to boot!
what about sugar?
Remember earlier in the post when we talked about what carbs are? Sugars are not evil, they’re simply the basic individual unit of a carbohydrate. Just like a protein molecule can be broken down into individual amino acids.
It kind of drives me bananas when people demonize bread for “breaking down into sugar” when that is simply normal digestion at work, not a reason to avoid bread. We expect food to break down! No one would avoid protein because it “breaks down into amino acids”, right? SMH.
There are different types of sugar, but for the purpose of this blog, we can lump them into one category. I do this with confidence because the body, for the most part, sees sugar as sugar. There are no better or worse kinds.
As we mentioned earlier, sugar is the preferred fuel for the body.
Sugar has been widely demonized in our society as a culprit of “obesity”. But my opinion is this: “obesity” is measured by the BMI, and the BMI is BS. I wrote a whole blog that helps to reframe fatness and health — you can check it out here: real talk: can you be “obese” and healthy?
The important point to take away here is that many of us fear sugar because we have been trained to believe sugar makes you fat. The full truth is that fatness is impacted by so many things, including genetics (yes, some people are just naturally fat as some people are just naturally thin!) and social determinants of health like poverty and access to grocery stores.
so how do we think about sugar more neutrally?
Well for some people eating sugar past a certain point may make them feel crash-and-burn energy, as will choosing sugar instead of something more voluminous with a satisfying combo of all three macronutrients (carbs, protein, and fat).
For example, a 1 pound tray of melt-in-your-mouth fudge is not going to register in your belly the same as a 1-pound greek salad with chicken, pita bread, and cheese. The salad is more complex to digest and offers more balanced nutrition, so you feel satisfied longer! This reality doesn’t make eating the 1 pound of fudge “bad”, we just expect it to feel different, because it is different nutritionally!
Rather than fear sugar or cut it out entirely, I show clients how to have a better relationship with carbs and to REGULARLY eat them – including choices like fudge, if you want it.
No more “good foods, bad foods”. This prevents all carbs, or certain formerly “scary” carbs from becoming a “forbidden fruit” that opens the door to binge eating later on. (If evenings have been tough for you, check out this post: why am I overeating at night?)
Working on improving your relationship with all foods, including carbs, is a matter of working on mindset, fear of weight gain, and then helping you tune in to your body as you eat these foods. This stuff isn’t easy, but it is important work that allows you to live your actual best life, not one spent chasing diets and weight loss.
how to balance carbs?
For many of you reading this post, balancing carbs isn’t actually something you need to micromanage: with food freedom, your body will guide you. When you give yourself permission to eat cake and ice cream whenever you want – without shame or embarrassment – the pull to binge starts to fade away.
With practice, your body will clue you in to also eat fruit, veggies, beans, and other carbs.
But for some folks, balancing carbs is a good idea for long-term health. Specifically those with prediabetes, diabetes, and PCOS. If this applies to you, you can better support your body’s ability to process carbs by learning to eat carbs in partnership with other kinds of foods.
For example, having peanut butter (fat + protein) along with your apple (carbs). And by the way, even if your health condition warrants keeping closer tabs on your carbs, it still doesn’t mean that carbs are “bad” or should be avoided. Your nutrition improves when all foods fit.
For all of us, learning to eat enough carbs with other types of foods may help your nutrition, digestion, and overall health. Though, not everyone needs to think this way, and, even if you do – you can have a “most of the time” attitude about it.
There’s no need to be overly rigid or perfect. Nutrition happens over weeks and months, not hours and days. One meal or snack will not impact your health all that much, so no need to beat yourself up over it!
Carbs are an essential nutrient and include sugars, starches, and fiber. Your body – especially your brain – prefers carbs. When we eat too few carbs, we feel like garbage and open the door to binge eating later.
If you’ve been nervous about eating carbs, or struggling with overeating them, I can help. When we work together I show you how to create a consistent, sustainable way of eating. Intuitive Eating is a beautiful partnership with you and your body that you can learn to do naturally and effortlessly for a lifetime – without dieting or restriction.
By learning to make peace with carbs and truly feel confident in what they are, how they work, and how much to eat to feel good mentally and physically, you’ll never need a diet again. And, you never need to feel so out of control with those all-or-nothing binge extremes.
You deserve food freedom. I can help you get there. Join the No Guilt Community today and start your journey to food freedom. Viva la carbs!