Macro Series: What are Carbohydrates?

If you’re looking for information on carbohydrates, one question might be on your mind: Are they bad? The answer to that is a lot more complicated than a simple yes or no. Don’t worry, though! I’m here to clear a few things up!

bowl of spaghetti covered in parmesan cheese on grey countertop

Carbohydrates and Diets

Before the Agricultural Revolution began, Hunter-Gatherers would forage and hunt for their food. If they didn’t find anything, they would fast until their next meal was caught. This is what we recognize today as the Paleo Diet. Strip your diet of all processed foods, sugar, soft drinks, grains, dairy, legumes, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils, margarine, and trans fats. If it looks like it was made in a factory, don’t eat it. If you can’t pronounce the name of the ingredient, don’t put it in your mouth.

In the process of trying to understand low-carb diets, many assume that carbohydrates are not to be consumed because they are bad for us. Research has told us for decades that carbohydrates lead to disease, many times leaving us to believe that we must eliminate them from our diet entirely.

seeded whole wheat artisan loaves of bread

But what if these sources are all wrong? Sure, they may be right about the link between disease and processed foods, but does this merit placing carbohydrates as a whole in the naughty bin? I think not.

It’s important to note that not all carbohydrates should be treated as ‘cheat’ food. To say that one is bad over another is to discount many people’s and culture’s bulk of their meals. For example, while some may stay away from white rice, I thrive off of it as my ancestry on both sides (Chinese and Puerto Rican) relies on this to bulk up meals. While I don’t do well with bread or most gluten, many in Italy and France go through a loaf a day with no negative symptoms. It is not a question of what is good or bad. It’s more a question of what can we tolerate and in what quantity?

The Two Forms of Carbohydrates

If carbs were really bad, fruits and vegetables would be off the table. I pack my day full of these and they are vital to my well-being and overall body and brain function. They can help lower blood pressure, have a positive effect on blood sugar, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, and lower the risk of eye and digestive problems. 

Carbohydrates are 4 calories per gram and come in two forms.

Simple carbohydrates are composed of easy-to-digest, basic sugars. They can be found in fruits, milk, baked goods, candy, and soda. They can be used for immediate energy and are great before a workout for that exact reason.

Complex carbohydrates contain a longer chain of molecules than simple carbs, which take longer to break down in the body. These are found in whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables. These contain more starch and fiber, which can be used for consistent, long-term fuel and for clearing out the small intestine.

In your body, carbohydrates turn into sugar. Slow-digesting carbs help to regulate your glucose levels, while simple carbs elevate your glucose. Referring to the Glycemic Index (GI) can help you determine how much energy you will receive from your food. For example: If I’m about to work out for an hour, I might decide to eat a food higher on the GI scale, as I know I’ll be able to burn off that energy right away. If I’m sitting at work and I know I need to stay alert for 8 hours, I might be better off choosing something lower on the scale to avoid a sugar crash an hour or two later.

Who Should Be On A High-Carb Diet?

quinoa salad with tomatoe, quinoa, and turnip on a metal fork

Anyone can benefit from a high-carb diet, but not everyone! The human body is a complicated system. It is important to find a good ratio of macros that works for you, as it should be something that is sustainable for you long term. However, I should mention that these macros can change, and ideally, you’d want to be able to be flexible with your diet if your body allows. This makes travel, eating out, and many other situations a bit easier to handle as it allows your metabolism some flexibility while still maintaining your weight, body composition, and levelled out blood-glucose/blood pressure.

The best way to gain weight is to mix both high amounts of carbs and high amounts of fat.

Ok, that’s not always true, but in most cases, unless you’re working out consistently and intensely, you are likely to gain weight when on a high-fat + high-carb diet concurrently. When following a high-carb diet, you need to lower your fat intake in order to not go over your daily calories. Many people find that eating more carbohydrates helps sustain them through their workouts. Endurance Athletes can benefit from a higher carb diet, especially if these carbs are coming from healthy sources.

Here are some examples of high-carb “clean” meals for endurance athletes:

  • Beef and Barley Soup + Turkey Hero Sandwich
  • Quinoa + Veggie Salad (with extra tofu or chicken for more protein)
  • Baked Potato + Cottage Cheese + Salsa

What Carbohydrates Should You Eat?

Keep in mind, it is more important to eat carbs from healthy foods than to completely eliminate them from your diet. This will ensure you have metabolic balance and prevent any sudden weight gain from simply eating carbohydrates during a strict low-carb diet. This means you want to be able to balance out your macros and change them from time to time without any drastic changes in your weight or blood sugar. It will take a lot of trial and error to get there, and some will likely not be able to achieve this; those who work really well on high-fat diets may not respond well to high-carb and vice versa.

buckwheat noodles in an asian-styled stir-fry with sesame seeds on top

When adding carbs to your meal, look for a simple or complex carb that offers more fiber and less sugar. This will help you maintain sustainable energy throughout the day. The only thing that will help you decide whether certain carbs are right for you is to eliminate them for a period of time (usually around 2-4 weeks) and then reintroduce them. Many people will not have a negative reaction to fruits and vegetables, but eliminating dairy and grains may make a world of difference for some who are sensitive. If looking to maintain your weight, ensure your macros are well-balanced. In many cases, those looking to lose weight have done so successfully regardless of which macro they emphasize!

Carb-heavy alternatives

If you’re looking to change up your macros and eat less carb-heavy meals, you’ve come to the right place. I know that when I tried to reduce my gluten intake, this automatically removed many of my favorite foods, such as pasta and bread. I found some amazing alternatives that were low in sugar and not full of unnecessary fillers, however, these come with a heftier price tag. Here are some cost-effective options for those looking to reduce their carbs or gluten intake.

Pasta: spiralized zucchini (or other veggies), spaghetti squash, eggplant lasagna, grain-free legume-based noodles (black bean, lentil, chickpeas), soba noodles, shirataki noodles (0 carbs!), brown rice pasta.

Bread: lots of gluten-free options (this one is my favorite!), Ezekiel bread, Cloud Bread, Portobello mushroom burger buns, Lettuce leaves (great for burgers or wraps), steamed collard greens, Nori sheets.

avocado toasts with tomatoes and mushrooms on topRice: Quinoa, brown/black/wild rice, riced cauliflower or broccoli, Shirataki rice, barley, couscous, orzo.

Vegetables: Broccoli, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, kale, eggplant, bell peppers, celery, asparagus, green beans, mushrooms, and the list goes on! The less starch, the lower the carbs.

Fruits: Avocado, olives, strawberries, grapefruit, apricots, raspberries, and more!

Have you ever tried a high-carb diet? How did it work for you? Let us know in the comments below!


Chelsea Pineiro

Chelsea has been active most of her life, which led her to become a Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor for the past 7 years. Health and Fitness are not solely dependent on movement, though, and with that understanding, she addresses her client’s other needs, such as diet, mindfulness, and stress management.

When she is not training clients or teaching Yoga, she is finding new activities that keep her mind and body active, such as hiking, photography, listening to podcasts, or playing video games. She is constantly working toward finding natural solutions to live a balanced lifestyle, inclusive Yoga for all body types, and aiming to find mindfulness in everything she does.

Alexia Palmeri

Alexia Palmeri is a 28-year-old personal development enthusiast! She looks at life experiences as an opportunity to always learn and grow. Alexia is also a broadcast journalism graduate with a passion and knack for communications and media. She is always on the lookout for new trends on social media and keeps up to date with what's happening in the world. In her free time, Alexia enjoys socializing with family and loved ones, being in nature, cooking nourishing meals, and discovering new places to dine and adventure!

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(2) comments

Carol June 1, 2021

I always just thought carb = bad when attempting to lose weight. I really liked the sentence “it is more important to eat carbs from healthy foods than to completely eliminate them from your diet”. I think I will definitely look into quinoa as a substitute in my diet. Thank you so much for valuable info!

    Chelsea Pineiro June 2, 2021

    Hey Carol! Trust me, I’ve had a rollercoaster relationship with carbs. The restriction may cause weight loss, but it’s impossible for me to maintain, especially since I look at it from a “restricted” point of view. This leads to me missing carby treats and then eventually binge eating!

    I’m glad you got something out of this blog! Enjoy the quinoa! It’s great on salads in the summer, too!

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