How Many Carbohydrates Do You Need Every Day?

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According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, about half your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. So that's quite a lot. But, there's more to it than how many carbs you need—some sources of carbohydrates are better for you than others.

First, what are carbs? Carbohydrates are mostly found in plants where they provide energy and structure. Sugars, starches, and fibers fall into this category. And although animals need and consume carbohydrates, you won't find any carbs in meat, fish or poultry. But you will find carbs in milk and dairy products because they contain lactose, which is also a type of sugar.

How Many Carbs Do You Really Need?

Your carbohydrate need can be based on your caloric intake. If you know how many calories you need each day, you can figure out how many grams of carbs you need:

  • Start by determining your daily calorie need and divide that number in half. That's how many calories should come from carbohydrates.
  • Each gram of carbohydrate has four calories. Divide the number you got from the first step by four.
  • The final number is equal to the amount of carbohydrates in grams you need each day.

For example, a person who eats approximately 2,000 calories per day should take in about 250 grams of carbohydrates (2,000 divided by 2 = 1,000 and 1,000 divided by 4 = 250).

Tracking Your Carbohydrate Intake

Follow these simple steps:

  • Find the carbohydrate grams on the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods. You'll find calorie information there too, but be sure to double-check the serving size and number of servings per package.
  • Use the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference to calculate carbohydrate amounts for fresh foods. It's a large database that's regularly updated.
  • Keep a food diary to track your information. You can print out your own pages and keep them in a notebook.

Which Carbs are Best

Carbohydrates include complex carbohydrates, like starches, and simple sugars such as white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey. As far as plant-based carbs go, choose 100 percent whole grains and fruits and vegetables for most of your carbohydrates.

The standard tip is to 'make half of your grains whole.' That way, as long as you eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables, you'll add a substantial amount of fiber to your diet.

Of course, you don't want to consume carbs only. You need protein and fat, just not as much. Balance your carbohydrate choices with protein sources, such as lean meat, poultry, eggs, or fish, and some healthy fat such as olive oil, avocado, or nuts and seeds. Protein combined with high-fiber carbs helps keep you feel full between meals.

Watch Out for Sugars

The worst carbohydrates sources may be sugary foods, including things made with sugar, honey, corn syrup or maple syrup. These foods usually have too many calories but offer little or no nutritional value. 

Avoid sugary snacks, pastries, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, candy, and cookies. And keep an eye out for heavily processed foods that often contain added sugars, even those that don't taste sweet.

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