With "low-carb" a catch phrase in today's popular culture, many people are left wondering: What is a carbohydrate? How many should you eat per day? And what are their effects on our bodies?
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A carbohydrate is an organic compound composed of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Called "carbs" for short, these compounds are essential building blocks for the body, as well as a source of energy.
There are three types of carbohydrates: starches, sugars, and fiber. Starches (also known as "complex carbohydrates") are found in dried beans, lentils, some veggies (such as peas, corn, and potatoes), and grains (such as oats and barley). Sugars include those naturally occurring in foods (like lactose in milk or fructose in fruit) as well as refined sugars (like those in cookies, candy, and syrups). Fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods, and can be found in most fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
How many carbs should you consume? Medical experts suggest that you obtain roughly 60% of your daily calories from carbohydrates. To calculate the amount of carbs you need in your diet, multiply the number of calories you need by 0.6; for example, if you need 2,000 calories per day (which is common), you'll need 1,200 of those calories to come from carbs. There are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrates, so a person who needs 2,000 total calories per day should expect to take in 300 grams of carbs.
Carbs that come from vegetables, grains, and fruits are obviously going to be better for your body than carbs from sugary snacks. Instead of ingesting high amounts of refined white flour, try eating whole-wheat bread and crackers. Replace your whole milk with skim or 1 percent milk. Also, try to avoid juices with added sugar, choosing 100 percent juices instead of "juice cocktails."
In recent years, fad diet plans such as the Atkins Diet have praised the efficiency of so-called "low-carb" diets in promoting weight loss. That has led to the popularity of marketing food products as "low-carb" or "no-carb." Because of such diet fads, many people believe that carbs are inherently harmful, and that if they avoid them, they will experience health benefits. Such perceptions, however, are mistaken, and when taken too seriously, can be dangerous. Carbohydrates are important for good health; decreasing your intake too drastically can lead to kidney or liver damage, and may even increase your cholesterol. When trying to lose weight, it's not necessarily important to decrease your carbohydrate intake— just try to consume more "good carbs" (vegetables, fruits, whole grains) instead of "bad carbs" (processed flour, refined sugars, and syrups).
As with any diet, always consult a doctor before making major changes to your eating habits.