Know thy enemy and know yourself. And if I know myself all too well, my enemy over the years has been carbohydrates (carbs). CARB is treated like a dirty four-letter word by many fitness fanatics. It’s true that eating too many carbs can make you fat and lead to metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes. In fact, a 2022 review of several research studies (a meta-analysis) published in Scientific Reports concluded that people who got 70% or more of their calories from carbs were more likely to have type 2 diabetes.
But still, carbs aren’t inherently evil. In my practice as a certified health coach and functional medicine practitioner, a crucial step in helping my clients lose weight and manage diabetes is helping them easily count carbs. I’ll tell you how to do that in just a bit. But before that, let’s cover the basics of what carbs are because some people only have an abstract idea.
What Are Carbohydrates?
On a chemical level, carbs are made of carbon, hydrogen (2 molecules) and oxygen. But that’s not really important when it comes to weight loss. What matters is this. Imagine your body is like a car, and carbohydrates are the fuel that makes the car go. Just like cars need gas to run, our bodies need carbohydrates to have energy and do all the things we love (or hate) to do: running, shopping, cooking, and even thinking!
Carbohydrates are one of the three main types of macronutrients in our food, alongside proteins and fats. Just like gasoline in a car is a mixture of many kinds of hydrocarbon molecules, carbs in food contain molecules that our body breaks down into sugar (glucose). Glucose powers your brain, organs, and every cell in your body. But just like anything in life, too much of a good thing is bad.
When we eat too many carbs it’s like pouring too much gasoline in the fuel tank. The energy source of the car (the gasoline) can no longer be stored in the fuel tank. It’s the same thing with glucose in each of your tens of trillions of cells. When a cell is filled to the max with glucose, the hormone that lowers blood sugar levels to a normal range–insulin–is unable to enter the cell. Blood sugar levels then spike and the liver stores excess sugar as fat. It’s only a matter of time before the size of your adipocytes (fat cells) increases.
Of course, not all carbs are created equal. Fruits and vegetables are technically carbohydrates. So, too, are beans and lentils. But for most Americans, the problem isn’t eating too many fruits and vegetables, it’s eating too many starchy carbs.
How Many Carbohydrates Should You Eat?
So how many grams of carbohydrates should you eat? Let’s start by knowing how many grams of carbs you eat now. If you’re like the average American, according to the Johns Hopkins University Patient Guide To Diabetes, you’re probably consuming more than 250 grams of carbs per day. “This amount is too high for most people with diabetes. A higher carb intake makes controlling glucose and losing weight more of a challenge,” says JHU.
How many grams of carbs is recommended? JHU claims that the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbs is 130 grams per day. “This number is based on the amount of carbohydrate required to provide the brain with adequate glucose,” JHU explains, adding that there is no standard definition of a low-carb diet. However, less than 130 grams per day is often considered low carb by medical professionals because it’s below the RDA.
I couldn’t disagree more!
Count Grams of Starchy Carbs
Now don’t get me wrong. If you cut your total grams of carbs from 350 grams per day (250 is on the low side for many people) and reduce it to 130 grams, you’ll see noticeable results. You’ll become more insulin-sensitive. You’ll probably shed a few pounds and feel much better. Yet, I think low carb is more in the under 50-gram range.
For optimal health and wellness, I suggest not worrying about how many grams of carbs you’re getting from nutrient-dense (read: super healthy) foods like berries, sweet potatoes, green-leafy veggies and cruciferous veggies like broccoli and cauliflower. Instead, just focus on the grams of carbs you’re eating from starchy foods, which is anything made with white or wheat flour (bagels, pastries, bread, muffins, pasta, cookies, pretzels, etc.). Try to keep the total daily grams of starchy carbs to under 100 grams per day.
Total Carbs Per Day For Weight Loss
So let’s break down the range of carb grams.
- 0-50 – At this level, you’re burning your own stored body fat for energy. This is called ketosis (the “keto” diet). But I don’t recommend jumping into the keto diet. It’s not a sustainable way to keep weight off.
- 50-100 – This is the sweet spot for steady, safe weight loss.
- 100-150 – This is a big improvement over the typical American diet. But it’s more like a maintenance phase.
- 150+ – Eating this many grams of carbs, especially mostly starchy carbs, will make weight loss and blood sugar control difficult.
Memorize Grams of Carbs
These days, with smartphone apps, it’s easy to track your carb grams. However, memorizing how many grams of common foods have makes it easy to count carbs. Print out this list or take a pic with your phone. After a while, you won’t have to refer to the list because you’ll have it memorized.
Keep in mind the grams of carbs per serving are an estimate.
- Less than 15 grams: broccoli, spinach, carrots, milk, popcorn, mustard, ketchup, mayo, soy sauce
Note: This is not to imply that ketchup is healthy. A tablespoon of ketchup contains 4 grams. That’s a lot of sugar in a spoonful. And do you really only eat one tablespoon when you eat fries? No, more like 5 tablespoons!
- 15-20 grams: citrus fruit (orange grapefruit; serving size 1 cup, medium); berries, yogurt, chocolate chip cookie, honey, jelly
Note: Do I really need to mention that chocolate chip cookies aren’t nutrient-dense? If you allow yourself one little Famous Amos-size cookie at night, that’s a legit harmless treat. But rare among us is the person with the willpower to have just one!
- 20-30 grams: apple, banana, grapes, sweet potato, cereal, peas, ice cream, pretzels, crackers, maple syrup, barbecue sauce
- 30-40 grams: Baked potato, 2 slices of bread, beans, lentils, chickpeas, oatmeal, jelly beans, fruit juice
- 40-50 grams: most grains like rice (both brown and white), pasta, quinoa, barley, and couscous; tropical fruits like mango, soda
- 50+ grams: bagels, muffins, many packaged pastries and desserts
Counting Carbs The Easy Way
It’s easy to see how grams of carbs can quickly add up. But as I said, don’t worry about your overall grams of carbs. Instead, focus on how many grams of carbs you’re eating from foods that are high in sugar and starches.
But what if you have intense cravings for high-carb foods like pasta? The good news is that I’ll show you some amazing substitutes, like shirataki noodles, that satisfy your carb cravings without spiking your blood sugar. Losing weight isn’t just about cutting carbs, it’s about keeping your tummy happy.
Not sure how to get started? Your first step is getting in touch. I invite you to check out my services to help you reclaim your health.
Until next time…
Jenna Witt, NP