How Many Carbs You Need Every Day

You may be eating too few. Use this formula to find out

Bowl of oatmeal with fruits and nuts on top
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According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, about half your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. That's quite a lot. But, there's more to the recommendation than that. Some sources of carbohydrates are better for you than others, and the number of carbs a person needs depends greatly on age, weight, height, and activity levels.

Understanding Carbs

The term "carbs" is short for carbohydrates, one of the three macronutrients found in foods that provide your body with energy. Carbohydrates, protein, and fat provide your dietary calories.

Carbs 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.

Calculating Your Goal

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:

  1. Start by determining your daily calorie need and divide that number in half. That's how many calories should come from carbohydrates.
  2. Each gram of carbohydrate has four calories. Divide the number you got from the first step by four.
  3. 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).

Determining Your Intake

You may be surprised that by going "carb free" you may actually be eating more of the other macronutrients; remember that proteins and fats can still lead to weight gain if you eat too many calories from those sources. Or you may be getting too few carbs relative to your activity levels, leaving you depleted of energy and not able to keep up with your fitness goals.

Follow these simple steps to track your intake:

Read Food Labels

You can find the carbohydrate grams on the Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods. You'll find calorie information there, but be sure to double-check the serving size and number of servings per package.

Calculate the Number of Grams of Carbs

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

Keep a food diary to track your information. You can use a journal or a free online food tracker and calorie counter. Also consider keeping track of your mood, sleep patterns, and activity levels. Down the road, you may be able to make some associations between food choices and their effect on your daily mood and activity levels.

Which Carbs Are Best

Carbohydrates include complex carbohydrates, like starches, and simple sugars such as white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and honey. Complex options are best.

The standard tip is to 'make half of your grains whole.' As far as plant-based options go, choose 100 percent whole grains and fruits and vegetables for most of your carbohydrates. 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 need protein and fat as well, just not as much. Balance your carbohydrate choices with protein sources, such as lean meat, poultry, eggs, or fish, and some healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, or nuts and seeds. Besides the nutrition benefits these can bring, protein combined with high-fiber carbs helps keep you feel full between meals.

Watch Out for Sugars

The worst carbohydrate 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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