Carbs—they can be so confusing! Without a doubt, the most common nutrition questions I get from Brain Warriors are about carbohydrates—which ones to eat, which ones to avoid, when to eat them, and how much to eat. I hear you. To clear up some of the confusion, here’s my Brain Warrior’s Guide to Carbs…
Carbs are not the enemy.
Contrary to what high-protein and high-fat diet advocates claim, “carbohydrate” is not a dirty word. In fact, carbs are essential to life and to brain health.
Avoid simple carbs.
Simple carbs include sugar, bread, pasta, white rice, potatoes, and baked goods. Also known as refined carbs, they are lacking in nutrients, make your blood sugar spike (then crash), cause insulin resistance, trigger inflammation, and are associated with depression.
Go for smart carbs.
Smart carbs are vegetables, low-sugar fruits, and gluten-free pseudo-grains like quinoa and wild rice. These foods are rich in fiber and cause a slower rise in blood sugar than “unwise” carbs like sugar and refined flours. They are also full of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, which reduce the risk of developing physical diseases, as well as depression, anxiety, and dementia. Try to use vegetables as your primary carbs. And when you do opt for low-sugar fruits or gluten-free complex carbs (like quinoa, wild rice, or gluten-free oats), have them as a side to a meal that includes healthy fats, lean protein, and lots of veggies.
On a personal note, sweet potatoes are one of my favorite smart carbs. They can be a wonderful addition to the diet for most people as they are very high in beta-carotene, manganese, b-vitamins, vitamin C, and fiber, and have been found to improve blood sugar regulation.
Try these smart carbs (click each for a simple recipe):
- Brussels sprouts
- Green beans
- Red peppers
- Sweet potatoes (try my “Sensible Sweet Potato Mash”)
When to eat carbs depends on your individual needs.
Some scientists say no carbs in the evening, others recommend them because they promote relaxation and sleep. As with many nutrition recommendations, it largely depends on the individual. For example, if you tend to be the anxious type, having small amounts of complex carbs throughout the day may be helpful. If you have trouble sleeping, eating some sweet potato with dinner can be helpful. If you’re going to do an endurance workout—think running a marathon, not walking on the treadmill for half an hour—you may want to fuel up on smart carbs beforehand. Take note this isn’t a license to overindulge in refined or sugary carbs—a mound of pasta, a giant plain bagel, or a massive muffin. Stick to smart carbs.
How to calculate how many grams of carbs you need.
The amount of carbs you need is highly dependent on the amount of activity you do in a day, as well as on your health history and personal goals. As a general rule, people eating a balanced diet (not a very low-carb diet) need a minimum of 3-4 g per kg of body weight. (To calculate kg, divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.) For example, if you weigh 150 lbs, your weight in kilograms is 68 kg, and your carb requirement is about 200-250 grams per day. For highly active people, sports exercise specialists recommend at least 5 g of carbs per kg of body weight (and often much higher levels for endurance athletes). In this example, a 150 lb highly active person would need about 340 grams of carbs per day.
What about low-carb diets? There is a growing body of research showing that lower-carb eating (under 100 g/day) or ultra-low-carb eating (under 50 g/day) can be beneficial for brain health. However, you can achieve similar brain health benefits by simply fasting for at least 13 hours between dinner and breakfast and eating a whole-foods diet during eating hours.
Calculate what percentage of your diet should come from carbs.
Many Brain Warriors find it easier to think about carb consumption based on percentages rather than calculating grams. If you fall into this category, understand that nutritionists typically calculate protein requirements first, followed by carb needs, and then leave the remainder of the diet to healthy fats. This usually ends up with 20-30% of foods coming from proteins, 60-70% from complex “smart” carbs, and 10-15% from healthy fats.
However, if you are eating a low-carb diet using primarily fat for energy, your need for healthy dietary fats increases greatly. So there’s not a one-size fits all solution, but this gives you a general idea of how to calculate your needs. If you need more personalized support, consider making an appointment with one of our nutritionists.
Carbs can have a strong and almost immediate impact on your brain.
Eating carbs affects your moods, anxiety levels, and cognitive function. Consuming refined carbs can ramp up anxiety, mess with your moods, and give you brain fog, while focusing on “smart” fruits and vegetables makes you calmer, happier, and more clear-headed—almost immediately. Some research shows that no antidepressant works this fast!
In part, these effects are due to carbs’ impact on serotonin production. Simple carbs provide a quick rise in this “be happy, don’t worry” neurotransmitter, but long-term consequences include inflammation, which can eventually impede serotonin production. It can also disrupt gut health, which is critical because the gut is where two-thirds of our serotonin is made. On the flip side, complex “smart” carbs help promote gut health and provide a steadier supply of serotonin to keep you feeling good.
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