Making the Most out of Your Calorie Budget: Carbohydrates
You’ve figured out how many calories you need for whatever your goal may be–now what? Though staying ‘on budget’ is the bottom line when it comes to your weight, how you choose to spend those calories will have a huge impact on what kind of weight you’re losing (or gaining), your ability to stick with your plan over the long haul, and–of course–your health. In this post, I’ll discuss carbohydrates and the vital role they play in any diet plan.
I should begin by giving a quick definition of terms. Carbohydrate is a blanket term that includes both sugars and starches. (Fiber is also a carbohydrate, but since it is nondigestible and does not offer calories, we’ll exclude it for now.) Ultimately, all digestible carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars by the body. Carbohydrates are your primary source of energy, fueling everything from your brain to your muscles and everything in between. Food groups that contain carbohydrate include grains, beans and starchy vegetables; fruits; and certain dairy products (namely, milk and yogurt). Of course, any food that has added sugar would also have carbohydrate. Carbohydrate contains 4 calories per gram and can range from highly processed and otherwise low in nutrients to wholesome and rich in nutrients.
Despite what various high protein/low carb diets have been pushing, carbohydrates are not the devil. They are also not necessarily responsible for the extra weight you’re carrying. Remember, your weight is a balance between the calories you eat and the calories you burn; anything eaten in excess, therefore, can lead to weight gain, whether you’re eating too much carbohydrate, protein, or fat. Yes, any of these macronutrients–even protein–eaten above and beyond your calorie needs will cause you to gain weight. Granted, carbohydrates are often easier to overeat than the others, especially when they’re highly processed and all gussied up with extra sugar, salt, and fat. But, by choosing wholesome carbohydrates most of the time, they can provide you with long-lasting energy and essential nutrition without blowing your calorie budget. (I’ll go into wholesome carbs to greater detail in a later post.)
So back to carbs. While there is no single ‘right percentage’ to be eating, I generally recommend somewhere between 40% and 60% of calories from carbohydrate. Sounds like a huge range, but there’s a good reason for that: Everyone is different. Not only are you the only you, biologically speaking, but your lifestyle, cooking skills, and food preferences are all completely unique to you as well. Let’s go over some examples to illustrate how you might want to tweak your carb intake.
Kristen is a cyclist and would like to maintain her weight. Using an online equation, she’s determined that she needs 2400 calories per day. Because she participates in endurance activities, she wants 60% of calories from carbohydrate, ensuring she’ll have enough fuel for her next ride. To figure out how many grams of carbohydrate she needs, she first multiplies 2400 calories by .6 (60%), which is 1440 calories. Carbohydrates offer 4 calories per gram, so by dividing 1440 calories by 4 calories per gram, she determines that she needs 360 grams of carbohydrate per day.
Julie wants to lose weight and will be following a 1600 calorie plan. She wants a moderate carbohydrate intake to fuel her trips to the gym, so she’ll be shooting for 50% of her calories from carbs. She multiplies 1600 calories by .5 (50%), which is 800 calories from carbohydrate. To determine how many grams of carbohydrate that is, she divides 800 calories by 4 calories per gram, which is 200 grams of carbohydrate per day.
Jeff likes to train hard and play hard. He wants to maintain his weight, but generally prefers less carbohydrate and more protein. So, he wants about 45% of calories from carbohydrate. He needs 3200 calories to maintain his weight. To figure out how much carbohydrate he needs, he multiplies 3200 calories by .45 (45%), which is 1440 calories. He wants to count carbohydrate grams, so he divides 1440 calories by 4 calories per gram, which equals 360 grams of carbohydrate per day.
Regardless of how you choose to divvy up your calories, portion control is of the utmost importance. This is a huge topic worthy of its own post, but for now I’ll leave you with two key thoughts: If you want to get a grip on your food intake, you’ve got to measure and you’ve got to food journal. Doing so will give you an accurate picture of just how much you’re putting down the hatch and it will also give you some all-important accountability.
In the end, your best bet is to choose a plan you can stick with for the long haul. Love the Paleo Diet? Great. Enjoy the Weight Watchers point counting system? Fabulous. Prefer a low-fat diet with an emphasis on heart health? Dandy. In the end, as long as you are meeting your various nutrient requirements and are enjoying the menu, you can feel free to go for whatever style meshes with your lifestyle and food preferences best.
Next time, we’ll chat about protein–how much, what kind, when, and why. Until then, you can give your calculator a break!