Understand dietary carbohydrate and carb targets in the Nutrient Explorer

What they are

Carbohydrates are one of the three major macronutrients, along with protein and dietary fat. A macronutrient is a nutrient you typically consume in relatively large quantities to meet your body’s needs.

What they do

Most carbohydrates in the diet come in the form of starches and sugars. Sugars are relatively simple compounds, composed of just one or two molecules. Starches are made from the same building blocks arranged in much longer chains. Sugars and starches primarily serve the purpose of providing the body with energy. Your body can liberate energy from stored carbohydrate faster than it can liberate energy from fat, so carbohydrates are particularly important for fueling high-intensity exercise.

Dietary fiber is also a carbohydrate, but its purpose is considerably different from that of starches and sugars. Dietary fiber aids in satiety (it slows down the rate of digestion, so the same amount of food will keep you full for longer), helps with regular bowel movements, and provides fuel for healthy gut bacteria.

Recommended intake

Most health agencies recommend carbohydrate to comprise about 45-65% of total energy intake, though exact carbohydrate needs can differ based on a variety of factors, including weight change goals, activity levels, and total energy needs.

People who perform more high-intensity exercise generally need to consume larger amounts of carbohydrates in order to maintain their performance. Otherwise, carbohydrate intake can largely be left to personal preference.

Likelihood of tracking completeness: Very high

Virtually all foods in the MacroFactor database contain dietary fat information, so it should be easy to accurately track your calorie intake with consistent food logging.

For more on the likelihood of tracking completeness, check out this article.

Likelihood of insufficient intake: Very low

Technically, no level of carbohydrate intake is required for normal functioning. Some people consume an extremely low-carbohydrate ketogenic diet for their entire lives.

However, when carbohydrate intake gets quite low, you may experience brain fog, low energy, and decrements in high-intensity exercise performance. Different people experience these symptoms at very different levels of carbohydrate intake – a sedentary individual may not notice much of an impact unless they’re consuming less than 100g of carbohydrate per day, whereas a marathon runner may notice a dip in performance and energy levels if their carbohydrate intake goes below 400g per day. It may also be challenging to consume enough fruits and vegetables to meet your micronutrient needs.

In general, the likelihood of experiencing mild symptoms associated with low carbohydrate intake tends to be higher when total energy intake is lower, since decreases in energy intake generally require decreases in carbohydrate intake.

For more on nutrients with a greater likelihood of insufficient or excessive intake, check out this article.

Signs of deficiency/insufficiency

As mentioned previously, humans don’t experience carbohydrate deficiency. However, the primary signs that you might benefit from increased carbohydrate intake are generally low energy levels and decreases in high-intensity exercise performance.

Good sources

You can sort most excellent carbohydrate sources into two categories, with plenty of overlap between categories: foods you primarily consume for nutrients, and foods you primarily consume for energy.

Nutrient-Dense, Energy-Sparse

Most of the energy in vegetables comes from carbohydrates, but many vegetables have relatively high levels of micronutrients (and other beneficial bioactive compounds) per unit of energy. Great foods in this category include leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, brussel sprouts, celery, cucumber, peppers, tomatoes, and okra.

Nutrient-Dense with Higher Energy Density

Plenty of foods strike a balance between having great nutrient density, while also providing more total energy from carbohydrates. Most fruits, beans and peas, root vegetables, squash, and whole-grain products are great foods in this category.

Energy-Dense, Nutrient-Sparse

Finally, some foods provide a lot of carbohydrate, with relatively low levels of most other nutrients. White rice and most refined grain products (like white bread and most pastas) are the predominant foods in this category. If your overall level of carbohydrate intake is low, it might not be a bad idea to limit your consumption of foods in this category, since they’ll crowd out foods in the first two categories that are much richer in micronutrients. However, if your overall carbohydrate intake is higher, these can be great sources of starch that will help fuel exercise, and will allow you to achieve your desired level of carbohydrate intake. Foods in the first two categories can be extremely satiating (which can be a drawback if your energy requirements are extremely high), and achieving high levels of carbohydrate intake from nutrient-dense sources can lead to extremely high fiber intakes that may cause digestive issues. So, there’s nothing wrong with eating enough fruits and vegetables to meet your micronutrient needs, and then turning to less satiating, starchier foods to fill out your total carbohydrate requirements.

The one carbohydrate source that most people should probably limit is carbohydrate in the form of added sugars. Foods with some added sugars (pastries, sweetened beverages, sweetened sauces or condiments, etc.) can certainly be enjoyed in moderation, but they shouldn’t comprise the majority of your carbohydrate intake.

Learn more

If you’d like to read more about carbs, you might enjoy this article from the knowledge base.

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