You need carbohydrates to live. A variety of fad diets would have you believe otherwise, but carbohydrates are your body’s preferred fuel. Every cell in your body needs them. You can break down fats and proteins for energy, but doing so results in unhealthy side effects, and it’s not nearly as efficient.
Glucose, a type of carbohydrate, is the only fuel source your brain can use. Your brain cells use twice as much glucose as any other cell in your body. The neurons, or brain cells, can’t store glucose, so they need a constant supply from your blood. Your muscles, including your heart, also need carbohydrates to function properly. A study published in the “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise” journal found that athletes who were given a carbohydrate solution during high-intensity exercise sessions were able to run faster and jump higher than those given a placebo. The carbohydrate-fed athletes also felt better and had enhanced motor skills, demonstrating that carbohydrates also affect your central nervous system. Fiber, another type of carbohydrate, keeps food moving through your digestive tract.
The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that about half of your calories come from carbohydrates. If you need 2,000 calories a day to maintain a healthy weight, about 1,000 calories should come from carbs. Since a gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories, you should eat about 250 grams of carbohydrate daily. The guidelines also suggest that women consume at least 25 grams of fiber daily and men consume 38 grams. Most Americans consume only about 15 grams a day.
Choosing Healthy Carbs
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. You can live without sugary, processed carbohydrates and would probably feel better if you did. For optimal health, choose your carbs wisely. Whole grains, pasta, brown rice and non-sugary cereals are good choices. Fruits contain carbs. You should eat about three servings of fruit daily. Some vegetables such as sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash, corn and legumes contain carbs and are loaded with vitamins, minerals and fiber. Low-fat or nonfat dairy products are considered healthy carbs as well.
A few medical conditions, including diabetes, hypoglycemia and hypertriglyceridemia, affect how your body metabolizes -- or breaks down and uses -- carbohydrates. However, you still need carbohydrates in your diet even if you suffer from any of these conditions. You just need to monitor and balance your carbohydrate intake carefully throughout the day. A registered dietitian can help you with meal planning if you have one of these conditions.
Kristin Mortensen began writing newspaper articles in 1992 for The Sierra Vista Herald. She has also been a registered dietitian since 1991, and has worked for hospitals, clinics and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) programs. Mortensen has a bachelor of science in dietetics from Brigham Young University.