What Are Carbohydrates? How Many ‘Carbs’ Do You Need?

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Do you know your good carb sources from bad?

Do you have a good handle on carbohydrates? Essentially, you get carbohydrates from a wide range of foods, and you need them to keep your body’s engine running.

Just what are carbs, anyway? As much as people talk about carbohydrates, you’d think that everyone actually knows where we get our carbs and how much carbohydrate we should be eating every day—or not. In truth, carbohydrates have been both praised and punished—in part because they’re largely misunderstood.

Carbohydrates explained

When I say the word carbs, you probably picture starchy foods like noodles, bread, rice and potatoes. And you’d be right. But you’d be just as right if fruits or vegetables popped into your head. And you’d still be right if you thought of sugar or honey or jam—or even a glass of milk. That’s because lots of foods supply carbohydrate, and it’s a good thing, too. When it comes to keeping your engine running, your body’s first choice of fuel isn’t fat or protein—it’s carbohydrate.

We get our carbs from a wide range of foods. But clearly some of them are healthier for us than others. That’s why you sometimes hear people refer to different carbs as being ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ What they’re trying to say is that the good carbohydrate sources are those that are the least processed—foods like whole fruits, vegetables, dairy products, beans and whole grains. Dairy products also fall in this category, because foods like low-fat milk, yogurt and cottage cheese deliver carbohydrate to the body in the form of naturally occurring sugars.

The other reason these carbs are good is that they provide more than just energy to the body. There are also vitamins and minerals tagging along. And in the case of fruits, vegetables, beans and grains, we also pick up some fiber and antioxidants.

On the other hand, the highly processed refined bad carbs—sugars, pastries, white rice, and white flour breads, cereals, pasta and crackers—have little to offer the body beyond just calories. That’s why it’s best to steer towards the whole fruits, veggies, whole grains and beans to meet your carbohydrate needs.

How much carbohydrate do you need?

How much carbohydrate should you eat every day? It’s not a simple question to answer. That’s because the amount of carbohydrate you need to eat depends, in large part, on how many calories you burn every day. But it also depends on how active you are. It’s suggested that you aim to eat roughly half your calories from carbohydrate. But if you do a lot of extensive exercise, you might need a bit more. Some people try a very low carb approach to weight loss, but it often backfires. When you cut your intake too far, you may not provide your body with enough carbohydrate to fuel your active lifestyle.

You can estimate your carbohydrate needs fairly simply. If you eat 1600 calories a day, about half of your calories should come from carbohydrate. In this case that would be about 800 calories a day from carbohydrate. Since every gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories, you’d divide your suggested carbohydrate calories by 4 to figure out how many grams you should eat per day. In this case, 800 calories of carbohydrate is 200 grams.

Here’s a guide to the amount of carbohydrate you should aim for daily, along with a list of some healthy carbohydrate foods with their carbohydrate content.

Learn your personal carbohydrates needs

Daily calorie needs             Suggested daily carb intake (50% calories)

1200                                                    150 grams

1400                                                    175 grams

1600                                                    200 grams

1800                                                    225 grams

2000                                                    250 grams

2200                                                    275 grams

2400                                                    300 grams

Essential guide to carb levels in common foods

Serving Size
Carbohydrate (grams)
Apricots3 whole12
Apple1 medium25
Blackberries1 cup (150g)14
Blueberries1 cup (150g)21
Cantaloupe1 cup cubes (150g)13
Grapes1 cup (150g)27
Grapefruit½ medium fruit11
Kiwi1 average10
Mango½ large25
Nectarine1 medium15
Orange1 medium18
Papaya1 cup cubes (150g)16
Peach1 medium15
Pear1 medium27
Pineapple1 cup, diced (150g)22
Plums2 small15
Strawberries1 cup, sliced (150g)13
Tangerine1 medium12
Watermelon1 cup balls (150g)12
Vegetables (cooked, unless noted)
Artichoke1 medium14
Asparagus1 cup (180g)8
Beets1 cup (160g)16
Broccoli, cooked, chopped1 cup (185)10
Broccoli, raw1 cup (70g)4
Brussels Sprouts1 cup (150g)11
Cabbage, cooked1 cup (150g)8
Cabbage, raw1 cup (70g)4
Cauliflower, cooked, chopped1 cup (120g)5
Cauliflower, raw, chopped1 cup (100g)5
Carrots, cooked1 cup slices (150g)13
Carrots, raw1 large7
Celery2 large stalks4
Corn1 ear14
Cucumber1 medium4
Eggplant1 cup cubes (100g)9
Green beans1 cup (125g)10
Green peas1 cup (160g)25
Kale, cooked, chopped1 cup (130g)7
Kale, raw, chopped1 cup (65g)5
Leeks1 cup (100g)8
Lettuce, shredded1 cup (50g)2
Mushrooms, cooked1 cup (150g)8
Mushrooms, raw1 cup sliced (70g)2
Onion, cooked1 cup (200)21
Peppers, chopped, cooked1 cup (135g)9
Peppers, chopped, raw1 cup (150)9
Spinach, cooked1 cup (180g)7
Spinach, raw1 cup (30g)1
Tomatoes, cooked1 cup (100g)13
Tomatoes, raw, chopped1 cup (150g)7
Winter squash1 cup (250g)22
Zucchini (summer squash)1 cup (180g)5
Grains, Beans, Starches
Beans (black, pinto, etc.)½ cup, cooked (85g)20
Brown Rice½ cup, cooked (100g)22
Lentils½ cup, cooked (100g)20
Potato, baked1 medium36
Quinoa½ cup, cooked (100g)20
Spaghetti, whole wheat½ cup, cooked (70g)18
Bread, Whole Grain1 slice14
Dairy Products
Cottage cheese1 cup (225g)8
Milk, nonfat or low-fat1 cup (250ml)12
Soy Milk, plain1 cup (250ml)8
Yogurt, plain, nonfat1 cup (250g)19

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