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What Is a Carb? How Many Should You Eat?

woman holding eggplant, squash and corn
Unrefined carbohydrates come from foods that are minimally-processed, like fruits and vegetables.

by Cheryl S. Grant

Let's play the word association game. What do you think of when you hear the word "carbs?" Your immediate thoughts might come to mind in this order: Pasta. Bread. DeliciousBad.

For years, you've probably been told to avoid carbs because they can cause weight gain. It feels like every other week there's another "guru" telling you to cut them from your diet. "This is unfortunate, considering that many sources of carbohydrates can — and should — be part of a healthy, well-balanced diet," says Charlotte Martin, MS, RDN.

Now let's answer a few basic questions: What is a carb, exactly? And what kind of carbs should you eat?

What Is a Carb?

As noted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, carbs are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in fruits, grains, vegetables, and milk products. Even though they are sometimes bashed in certain diet plans, they are not inherently bad for you and, quite frankly, can be an important part of a healthy diet. They give your muscles energy, fuel your central nervous system, and are needed for proper brain function.

Outside of how much you're eating, you should be careful of the sources from which you are getting your carbs. It's best to get your supply from natural, whole foods. Shopping along the outer edges of the supermarket (where the fruits, veggies, and dairy products are housed) is a good approach to selecting carbs.

Breaking Down Carbs

In order to best understand carbs, it is easier to look at them as refined versus unrefined. "Refined carbohydrates undergo extensive processing, which removes many important, disease-fighting nutrients," says Martin. This leads to the carbs breaking down in your body quicker than the unrefined versions, and being absorbed more quickly into the bloodstream.

While that may not seem like such a big deal, the results can include rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, which can lead to a crash — when your blood sugar levels drop and you're left feeling fatigued. Basically, the fatigue you feel after consuming one too many cookies is your body processing all those refined sugars and needing to reset. "Eating these refined carbohydrates frequently, and in large quantities, can promote weight gain," Martin notes.

Examples of refined carbohydrates include white bread, sugar (found in candy and sweetened soft drinks), and rice, as well as commercial baked goods. Unrefined carbohydrates come from foods that are minimally processed, like whole grain bread and pasta, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. "They provide nutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, which positively affect blood sugar and cholesterol levels, inflammation, digestion, and weight management," says Martin.

How to Shop for Carbs

You don't need to give up every processed item, just keep them to a minimum and pick carbs that offer health benefits. For example, next time you're shopping, you might opt for whole wheat pasta over regular pasta, as it's filled with more nutrients.

Try eating fiber-rich legumes such as black beans, kidney beans, and white beans. If you pair them with brown rice or quinoa, you can also increase your protein intake. Add diced (and cooked) sweet potatoes, acorn squash, and broccoli to your salads for extra flavor and vitamin C. Mix cherries, blueberries, strawberries, or bananas into your oatmeal or yogurt for a quick and healthy breakfast, instead of eating a sugary cereal that just leaves you feeling hungry again.

Eating carbs can be part of a healthy way of life. In fact, choosing ones packed with nutrients can actually energize you and help you get through tough workouts. If you find yourself eatingrefined carbs, just try to do so in moderation. Everyone deserves a treat every now and then — it's all about finding balance!