You know them well: pastas, breads, rice and potatoes. Called carbohydrates, or carbs, they’re the go-to nutrient that many people try to cut down on (or cut out) when trying to lose weight.
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But we need carbs. They’re the main energy source for your body, especially your brain. Your digestive system quickly breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar) to fuel your cells, tissues and organs. Your body can use glucose right away or store it for later use.
But some carbohydrates are better for your body than others. Knowing the difference, and how many carbs to eat per day, can benefit your health. It may also help if you’re trying to shed extra pounds — and keep them off.
“Carbs have a bad rap. But even for weight loss, you still don’t want to eliminate all of them. Many contain fiber and other nutrients that are good for you,” says registered dietitian Annalise Pratt, RD. “It’s important to strike a balance, so you get the most benefits and maintain good health.”
How many carbohydrates should you eat to lose weight?
Carbohydrate needs vary from person to person. The amount you need for weight loss depends on several factors such as your age, sex and activity level.
The recommended percentage of your daily calories from carbohydrates is typically 45% to 65% carbohydrates. Carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram. That means, if you follow a 2,000-calorie diet, you’d want 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates in your daily diet.
Losing weight requires you to burn more calories than you consume. Experts say you should aim to burn 500 calories more than what you eat each day. As far as how many carbohydrates to eat, Pratt says 100 to 150 grams of carbohydrates is safe for most people who are trying to lose weight.
It may be better for some people to eat carbs consistently throughout the day. “You can also break it up evenly with 40 to 50 grams of carbs per meal,” she says. “For example, if you have a sandwich, two pieces of bread would give you about 30 grams. Lunchmeat and cheese don’t add any carbs. If you have an apple with it, that would add 15 grams. In total, that would be about 45 grams of carbs.”
If you’re still hungry, Pratts suggests adding vegetables or something with healthy fats, like nuts. That way, you’re eating enough to fill up but you’ve met your carbohydrate goal.
Calculating how many carbohydrates you need
To calculate the right amount of carbohydrates for you, use the USDA DRI Calculator. It’s a well-established way of determining your nutrient needs, if you’re not on a weight loss diet, Pratt says.
The online calculator uses your height, weight, age, sex and activity level to show your:
- Body mass index (BMI).
- Daily calorie needs estimate.
- Recommended macronutrient intake (carbs, fat, protein and fiber).
- Recommended micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) and water intake.
Do I need more carbs if I’m very active or an athlete?
Yes. People who are physically active with more lean muscle mass can tolerate a lot more carbohydrates than those who are inactive. Limiting your carbohydrate intake can lead to poorer performance in exercise or sports, especially activities such as lifting weights or sprinting.
“Athletes, especially, need to have enough carbohydrates. If runners don’t have that storage of carbs, they’re going to suffer when they’ve been running for miles,” Pratt states. “This is why certain types of athletes, like competitive runners and bodybuilders, use carb cycling and carb loading before athletic events. If they’re not eating enough carbs, their body is going to use protein for energy, instead of for rebuilding and restoring their muscles.”
Are low-carbohydrate diets safe?
Low-carb diets involve restricting the carbohydrates you eat and drink and eating higher amounts of protein and fat.
Pratt says low-carb diets are safe for most people who are in good health. But you still need about 130 grams of carbohydrates for your brain and nervous system to work their best.
You may experience fatigue or other side effects if you don’t get enough carbs. You also need to monitor your saturated fat intake, which can lead to increased cholesterol levels.
For most people, it’s better to take a more balanced approach to weight loss that maximizes your long-term health, Pratt advises. Consume carbohydrates in moderation and avoid reducing your intake too much without medical supervision.
“If you decide to follow a low-carb diet, I recommend taking a multivitamin to be sure you are still meeting your vitamin and mineral needs,” she adds.
Who shouldn’t be on a low-carb diet?
Low-carb diets aren’t recommended for children or those who:
- Are pregnant.
- Exercise a lot or are an athlete.
If you have diabetes, talk to your healthcare provider before starting a low-carb diet.
What are good carbs to eat?
There are two broad categories of carbohydrates, based on their molecular structure and what they contain:
- Simple (refined) carbohydrates are mostly sugars and not as healthy for your body as complex carbs. They include white bread, potato chips and cookies.
- Complex carbs are sugars but they usually also provide other nutrients like fiber, protein and vitamins and minerals. They include minimally processed whole-grain bread, oatmeal and whole fruits.
“Complex carbs are typically more filling and provide better blood sugar stabilization,” Pratt notes.
How do carbohydrates help weight loss?
Choosing your carbohydrates wisely can help boost weight loss efforts when paired with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. Reducing your overall carb intake and replacing simple carbs with complex carbs and other healthy foods may help you:
1. Reduce your appetite
Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest than simple carbs, so they may keep you satisfied and energized for longer. This can help you hold off from snacking and potentially reduce your overall calorie intake. Other nutrients often found in complex carbs, like protein or healthy fats, also help fill you up more than simple carbs.
2. Burn more calories
In one study, adults with a BMI of 25 or more who followed a low-carb, high-fat diet burned more calories per day than those who didn’t. This change in metabolism, in part, may be a result of hormonal responses to a change in diet.
3. Keep your blood sugar stable
Eating simple carbohydrates, especially those high in refined sugar, can raise your blood sugar levels more than other nutrients. If simple carbs are your go-to, eating less of them or swapping some out with complex carb foods, may help control your blood sugar.
Healthy sources of carbohydrates
Whether your goal is weight loss or just improving your overall health, focus on eating fewer simple, less nutritious carbs like:
- Breakfast foods and snacks with added sugar like cereals and granola bars.
- Desserts, baked goods and sweets, including candy.
- Dried fruit, as well as fruit juice, jellies and jams.
- Packaged snack foods such as chips, crackers (unless whole grain) and cookies.
- Sweetened drinks, including soda, lemonade, energy drinks and sports drinks.
- Sweeteners such as sugar, honey or maple syrup.
- White bread and rice.
Instead, try to eat more nutritious complex carbs like:
- Beans and legumes, including chickpeas, black beans and lentils.
- High-fiber vegetables such as green peas, broccoli, sweet potatoes or butternut squash.
- Nuts or seeds, including peanuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds or sunflower seeds.
- Whole fruit with the skin on (like apples or peaches) or berries with seeds.
- Whole grains and starches, including rolled oats, barley, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa or pasta.
Maintaining the weight you lose
Reducing carbohydrates to lose weight involves more than keeping an eye on your plate. After all, some of the rapid weight loss from a low-carb diet comes from losing the water that carbs contain.
It’s important to pair a balanced diet with exercise and change unhealthy behaviors or habits, Pratt says. A healthcare provider, nutritionist or registered dietician can provide personalized recommendations based on your health, activity level and goals.
“Low-carb diets can work in the short term for weight loss, but it generally takes more than cutting carbs to create and maintain a calorie deficit,” she explains. “Having a well-rounded plan for losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight is the best formula for long-term success.”