Every time dieting is mentioned, the word carbohydrates comes up. But what are carbohydrates? Simply put carbohydrates, or carbs for short, are the chemical compounds that make up all sugars, starches, and fiber found in the food we eat.
Carbohydrates are the easiest way for the body to attain calories, which means that many slash and burn diets recommend cutting them out completely. However, a moderate carbohydrate intake is important for a healthy, complete diet.
What are carbohydrates for? Carbs are the body’s first resort when it comes to getting energy, but there are two other macro nutrients that the body is able to break down for calories as well. First, the body will exhaust its stores of carbs, from food and from the glycerin sugars present in the bloodstream. After carbs are exhausted, the body will break down fats, from food or stored lipids in body tissue. Last, proteins are broken down, again from food, or else from the body’s own muscle tissue.
However, diets that cut out carbs completely run into two problems. First, a small amount of carbohydrates are necessary for processing fat. This means that a diet completely free of carbs will skip the fat burning metabolism stage and skip straight to muscle atrophy as the body desperately searches for a source of energy. The second problem with a completely carb-free diet is that the brain requires carbohydrates for proper functionality. A brain deprived of carbohydrates will have negative effects on mood, memory, and other cognitive functions.
For this reason, the daily recommended amount of carbs for adults is 135 grams. This is the amount of carbs a brain needs to function properly, but not enough for the body to start attaining too much extra calories to store as fat. However, it is healthy to eat slightly more than the minimum number of calories sometimes.
The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends that carb intake should be a function of calorie intake. For most people of a healthy weight, a good ratio of carbs to other calorie sources is about 45% to 65% of calories from carbs, and the remaining 35% to 55% from fats and proteins. For a standard diet of 1800 calories per day, this works out to around 200-300 grams of carbs per day. Exceptions to this rule include diabetics, who need to avoid eating over 200 grams of carbs each day, and pregnant women, who require a minimum of 175 grams per day.
While carbs get a lot of bad press, especially in dieting circles, they are an essential part of a healthy diet. While an excess of carbs can be a key contributor to weight gain, extreme cases of cutting back on carbohydrate intake can be just as bad. People deprived of carbs may lose muscle instead of fat, and can even see decreased brain functionality. If you are dieting to lose weight or just trying to eat healthy, remember to keep some healthy carbs in your diet.