Have you been told to watch your carbs? Or have you picked up this idea from friends or the media? You may not know exactly what “carbs” encompass. Here I explain what carbs (carbohydrates) are, differentiate between the types, and help you figure out how many carbs you need on a daily basis.
In a nutshell, all foods that break down into simple sugars are carbs. All plant foods contain carbohydrates. In addition, milk contains carbs, as well as milk products like yogurt, half and half, and ice cream.
Plant foods may contain protein as well (nuts, seeds, quinoa, and beans are good examples), and they may also contain fat (avocados and coconut for instance), but all plants contain carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates: good or bad?
Carbohydrates are a major macronutrient that have gotten a bad reputation during recent years of low-carb and ketogenic diet trends. They are not evil; however many of us could stand to learn more about them.
In whole form, carbs can be healthy foods, and unless there’s a medical reason for avoidance, it’s important to consume them. Plant foods provide glucose for energy, fiber to feed our gut microbes, and phytonutrients (vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and more).
When carbs are problematic
Problems develop when we eat excess refined carbohydrates (foods made from all flours and/or added sugar). Most of us cannot consume excessive refined carbs without eventually suffering consequences.
At no time in history have we been able to obtain an infinite amount of refined carbs and sugars 24/7, until now. The consequences include:
- Type II diabetes
- High triglycerides
- Weight gain
- Metabolic syndrome
- Hormone imbalances
- Polycystic ovarian syndrome
- Energy swings and crashes
- Depression, anxiety, and moodiness
- Brain fog
- Gut bacteria and yeast overgrowth
Most of these can be prevented, and possibly reversed, with carbohydrate education put into practice.
You may have a refined carb addiction
If you feel that you have an actual addiction to certain refined carbs, you are not alone! Refined carbs can be highly satiating and addicting. What kind of carbs do you crave, and feel you cannot go without, every single day?
One of the most common culprits is gluten, contained in everything made from wheat flour: pancakes, cookies, bread, bagels, pastries, pizza, and more.
Addiction and intolerance go hand-in-hand
You can be intolerant of the very food or substance you feel addicted to. Early allergy researchers discovered this phonemenom.
There are three essential components of addiction:
- Intense craving
- Loss of control over the object of that craving
- Continued use or engagement despite bad consequences
Gluten is a prime example.
Celiac disease is a serious gluten intolerance. There is also non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is scientifically recognized as a real thing, and is also quite serious. If you have gluten sensitivity, you may actually produce your own endogenous opioids when you eat gluten. (This can be tested through Cyrex labs). If you have this reaction, it makes sense that gluten would be addicting!
Gluten is not just in wheat, it’s also in rye, barley, and oats that aren’t labeled gluten-free. Beyond these grains, gluten is used in a huge variety of processed foods. Learn more here.
We don’t usually have addictive behavior with gluten grains in their whole form. We aren’t going to the store at 2 am for cracked wheat cereal. It’s usually the processed forms, made from flour. These processed foods come with additional highly satiating ingredients like butter (or other fats) and sugar. We are biologically programmed to want highly satiating foods. These cravings can be hard to break, but once you retrain your taste buds your cravings will die down.
Sugar and sweeteners can also be addictive
Sugar and other concentrated sweeteners change your brain chemistry, not the exact same way as gluten, but they can effect your brain’s reward system, including dopamine receptors. There is not enough human research to classify sugar as an addictive substance, and scientists argue about this. However, if you have uncontrollable sugar cravings, or feel like you need it every day, that’s a sign of addictive behavior.
Sugar may be paired with gluten (common), or with ice cream (satiating fat), or chocolate (fat plus other feel-good substances).
If you are addicted to sugar and want to break free, read 11 Steps to Break Free from Sugar Addiction.
The good carbs
If refined carbs and sugar are problematic, what are healthy carbs? Whole food carbohydrates! This includes:
- Nuts and seeds
- Milk and milk products, if tolerated
- Whole grains, if tolerated
Whole food carbohydrates are mostly on the periphery of grocery stores, not in the center where the processed, refined carbs are. Of course there are exceptions. Some whole food carbs do come in packages.
How many carbs are right for you?
Download this Carb Chart for Women
|Suggestions for Populations||Carb %||Women,
2000 calories per day
2600 calories per day
|• Athletes, very active
• Fast carb metabolizer
• Trying to gain muscle/weight
At least 30%
|> 150 grams||> 200 grams|
|• Generally healthy
• Maintain weight
• Thyroid and Adrenal problems
|75 – 150 grams||100 – 200 grams|
|• Lose weight
• Stabilize blood sugar & mood
• Digestive problems
|50 – 75 grams||65 – 100 grams|
|• Neurological issues
|< 50 grams||< 65 grams|
Most of you probably fall into the middle two rows, Moderate Carb or Low Carb. These carb amounts refer to “net carbohydrates,” meaning after fiber is subtracted. Fiber doesn’t count, because it’s food for your gut bacteria. Just to be clear, the above are the amounts of net carbs to eat over a given day.
Another method to determine carb requirements
- Calculate your standard BMI here. Or calculate your smart BMI here. Or calculate your BMI with more detail (activity level and body measurements) here.
- If your BMI is normal (under 26) and you just want to maintain weight, follow Moderate Carb levels above.
- If your BMI is 26 or higher, decide if you choose Very Low Carb or Low Carb. Most of you should choose Low Carb. Decide based on your activity level. If you are sedentary, carbs should be lower. If you are highly active, carbs should be higher on this scale.
- Download an app for looking up net carbs or tracking yours. Here are two suggestions:
Low Carb Diet Master Pro and Carbs Control
Just net carbs. Nothing more, nothing less.
Use an app of your choice to look up net carbs or to track them. Here are 15 gram net carb portions for many whole foods, for a quick reference:
Download this Net Carb Chart
Cooked starchy vegetables, 15 grams:
- 1/2 cup Acorn Squash, Cassava, Corn, Green Peas, Lima Beans, Lotus Root, Turnips, Yucca
- 2/3 cup Butternut Squash, Parsnip, Pumpkin
- 1 cup Beets, Carrots, Leeks, Okra, Pumpkin, Spaghetti Squash
- 1/2 medium Potato, Sweet Potato, Yam
- 1/4 Rutabaga
Nature’s dessert: fresh fruit, 15 grams:
1 small Apple, 3/4 cup unsweetened Applesauce, 2 medium Apricots, 1 Avocado, 1/2 Banana, 1 cup Berries, Cherries, or Cranberries, 2 Figs, 1/2 Grapefruit, 15 Grapes, 1 large Kiwi, 3 Lemons, 2 Limes, 1/2 Mango, 1 cup Melon, 1 Nectarine, 1 Orange, 1 Peach, 2 Tangerines, 1/2 Papaya, 1/2 large Pear, 2 Persimmons, 3/4 cup Pineapple, 2 Plums, 1/3 cup cooked Plantains, 1/2 cup Pomegranate, 1 Tomato.
Non-starchy veggies, too low to bother counting carb content!
These are usually less than 5 grams of net carbs per cup, and have lots of great fiber to feed good gut microbes!
Arugula, Asparagus, Bamboo shoots, Bean sprouts, Beet greens, Bell peppers (red, green, yellow), Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Butterbur, Cabbage, Carrots (raw), Cauliflower, Celeriac, Celery, Chives, Collard greens, Cucumber, Dandelion greens, Eggplant, Endive, Fennel, Garlic, Ginger root, Green beans, Hearts of palm, Jicama (raw), Jalapeno peppers, Kale, Kohlrabi, Lamb’s quarter, Lettuce, Mushrooms, Mustard greens, Onions, Parsley, Peppers (sweet green, red and yellow), Radishes, Radicchio, Snap beans, Snow peas, Shallots, Spinach, Summer squash (crookneck, scallop, straight neck, zucchini), Swiss chard, Taro (leaves or shoots), Turnip greens, Watercress. There are more, but this list covers the most common.
Whole beans and grains, 15 grams:
Most whole beans (legumes) and grains contain 15 grams of carbs in a 1/3 cup serving. This is more of a condiment amount than a whole-plate amount. Exceptions:
- 1/2 cup Wild Rice
- 2/3 cup Whole Oats
- 2.5 cups Popcorn
- 1/4 cup Miso
- 1/2 cup Natto
- 1 cup Soymilk, unsweetened
- 1/2 cup Tempeh
- 1 cup Tofu
Dried fruit adds up quickly! 15 grams:
3 rings dried Apple, 7 halves dried Apricots, 1 TBS dehydrated banana, 2 TBS Zante Currants, 2 Dates, 1 fig, 2 halves Peaches, 1/2 dried Pear, 2 TBS raisons, 1/6 oz Sun-dried Tomato
Milk (dairy) foods, 15 grams:
- 1 and 1/4 cup milk (whole, 2%, or fat-free)
- 1 and 1/4 cup whole milk yogurt
- 3/4 cup reduced fat yogurt (reduced fat yogurt has more carbs compared to whole milk)!
Nuts, seeds, and their butters, 5 gram portions:
While nuts and seeds are high in fat and protein, they are plants, and they still contain carbohydrate. These portions contain about 5 grams of net carbs:
• Between 1/4 – 1/3 cup of Nuts or Seeds
• About 2 TBS of Nut or Seed Butter
Eating out, sweeteners, alcohol
Many restaurants now have nutrient facts on their menus, so you can see carb amounts. However, restaurant food is geared toward taste, and often has excess sugar and refined carbs, as well as excessive portion sizes.
If you eat out, choose protein and vegetables, and divide portions of starchy vegetables, beans, or grains into an approximate 1/3 cup portion. At social events, eat beforehand, then abstain or graze on healthy choices while there. If you go to family or friend’s for dinner, elicit help from them if needed so there is food for you. Or eat beforehand and then graze lightly.
ALL added sugar, even honey and sugar bought at health food stores, will shoot carb numbers way up. Artifical sweeteners (fake sugar) are all toxic. The sugar alcohol xylitol is a zero-carb, nontoxic option, however this will cause digestive upset for some women. You can also use stevia, which is zero-carb sweetener from birch trees. Xylitol and stevia, in moderation, should not raise your blood sugar or cause weight gain.
Beer and wine are higher in carb than spirits, although mixers added to spirits usually have added sugar. “Skinny drinks,” are meant to be low-carb, but now bars offer skinny drinks sweetened with agave, which is not low carb.
Who is carb appropriate eating for?
Anyone with the conditions listed above under When carbs are problematic, or a family history of those conditions. If you’ve had your blood work done recently, with the following results, carb appropriate eating is for YOU! After following a carb-appropriate plan (for you) for a few months, retest your blood and see the results!
- Fasting blood sugar over 90
- Hemoglobin A1C 5.4 or higher
- Triglycerides over 100
- Fasting insulin over 8
I would love your comments or questions below!