You are here:

Stop the carb confusion

image-istockSome carbohydrates are healthier than others, and eating too many processed carbs can harm your health.

Carbohydrates—or “carbs” for short—play a starring role in many healthy diets. For example, carb-rich whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are at the core of the heart-healthy Mediterranean and DASH diets.

But some diets cast carbs as villains, and we’re warned to stay away from them. “There’s a lot of conflicting information out there, and it winds up confusing people to the point that they’re unsure what to eat,” says dietitian Linda Delahanty, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

What’s a carb?

Sugars, starches, and fiber all are composed of carbs. The body converts carbs to energy to fuel the brain, nervous system, and muscles. In fact, carbs are the primary source of the body’s mental and physical energy.

Carbs are found in plant-based foods and dairy products. Unprocessed forms are healthiest. Whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and other legumes (such as dried beans or peas) contain unprocessed carbs. They are also loaded with vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients that keep us healthy and fight disease.

Fiber in particular can help stabilize blood sugar, lower cholesterol, improve bowel function, manage hunger and satiety, and promote weight loss.

Processed carbs are least healthy because their fiber is removed, and fats and salt are added for flavor. Examples are white bread and refined-grain pasta, sugar-sweetened drinks, chips, donuts, and cookies. “Sugar-sweetened beverages can cause blood sugar levels to spike and are associated with weight gain and increased risks of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes,” says Delahanty.

The fine print

The tricky part about carbs, however, is that they can lead to health problems if you wolf down too many of them. “Extra carbohydrates that are consumed beyond your body’s energy needs are stored as fat, and can result in weight gain and high triglyceride levels in the bloodstream,” says Delahanty.

For people with diabetes, who have difficulty processing sugars, eating too many carbohydrates at one sitting can spike blood sugar, which can make it difficult to manage the disease.

What you should do

It’s important to eat carbohydrates from a variety of food sources like fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and yogurt or milk to obtain the variety of different vitamins and minerals that you need for health. “Healthy adults need to consume a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrate per day to meet energy and fuel needs,” says Delahanty. But don’t overdo it; stick to the guidelines.

How many carbs should you eat?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that healthy adults limit their consumption of carbs to between 45% and 65% of their daily calories.

To find out how many grams of carbs that is, start with the total number of calories you want to consume for the day, and multiply that by 0.45 for the low end of your range and 0.65 for the high end. Then divide each of those results by 4 (each gram of carbs has 4 calories). “So, if you’re consuming 1,600 calories per day, you can eat between 180 and 260 grams of carbs per day,” says Delahanty. In other words: 1,600 times 0.45 is 720; divide that by 4 to get 180 for the low end of the range. Then, 1,600 times 0.65 is 1,040; divide that by 4 to get 260 for the high end.

Swap out your unhealthy carbs!

Instead of this…

…try this

English muffin


Refined pasta

Shredded zucchini


Fruit-infused water


Whole-wheat crackers





Hamburger bun

Whole-wheat bread

French fries

Sweet potato

Tortilla wraps

Lettuce wraps

Potato or corn chips

Kale or banana chips

White or yellow rice

Wild or brown rice

Posted by: Dr.Health

Back to Top