From the Blog

Carbs and Sugar: How Much Should I Consume Per Day?

March 9, 2020

With Valentine’s Day in the rear-view mirror and chocolates and sweets behind you, I thought I would hit on a hot topic.  SUGAR!!!!!  One of my favorites — just ask my kids.  One of the greatest challenges many Americans are facing is diabetes, defined as the body’s inability to metabolize sugar. The rate of diabetes in our country is mind blowing.  Did you know that in 1960, less than 1% of the population or about 1.6 million people had type 2 diabetes (adult onset) and in 2016, 7.5% or over 23 million did? Given that the U.S. population almost doubled in that same period, that 14-fold increase in the diabetes rate is especially shocking. Over-consumption of sugar, while not a direct cause of diabetes, has certainly contributed to risk factors for this disease. 

Research supports the negative impact of added sugar in our diets, but what about too many carbohydrates?  The old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” has some validity but must be taken in context.  Depending on what else you eat with that apple, you might still wind up needing a doctor.  Too much of any one category of food is probably not good for your system.

Explaining the difference between carbohydrates and added sugar is fairly simple.  The term “carbs” refers to one of the three macro-nutrients. The other two are protein and fat. Dietary carbohydrates can be split into three main categories including sugars, starches, and fiber. The main purpose of carbs is to provide energy, but when they go unused they can also be turned into fat or stored energy for later use.  All carbs have some sugar in them in one form or another.  Some carbs are starchier, some are more fibrous, and some are sweeter.

Added sugar is just what it says:  sugar that is put into another product.  It can be in the form of high fructose corn syrup, sucrose (table sugar), brown sugar, honey, maple syrup, fructose (fruit juice), molasses, and about 45 others.  The danger of added sugar is that you are often unaware that you are eating it.  Most of the processed foods we eat contains some added sugar.

Are all carbs equally healthy or unhealthy?  Fruits, vegetables, and dairy products naturally contain sugar, but they also contain fiber, nutrients, and various beneficial compounds.  Eating unprocessed real food in most instances is the best way to eat.  Consuming a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, some meat, and/or some fish is generally considered a healthy way of life.  The problem is that too many of us eat processed food with its added sugars in addition to real food, which we assume is good for us.  Eaten alone, the real food is usually very good for us, but if we don’t realize that some of those foods such as rice, potatoes, oats, cereal, etc., are high in natural carbs, then our total carb intake may be too high.  Remember, what we don’t use as energy will get stored as fat someplace in your body, most likely your abdomen or liver.

So how much added sugar is too much and how many grams of carbs should we consume per day?  The World Health Organization (WHO) says that only six to 10 percent of our daily calories should come from added sugar. “That equals 120 to 200 calories and 30 to 50 grams per day for a 2,000 calorie diet, respectively,” says Jenny Champion, a certified diabetes educator in New York City.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. So if you consume 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates a day.  Take a look at these two examples below.  Sample 1 is what most people might consider a healthy 300 grams of carb day and then I will show you what many people might consider to be a less healthy 300-gram carb day.

Sample 1 – healthy but a little low on veggies.

                                                               Food Net Grams Carbs Grams FatGrams ProteinCalories
16 Ounces of coffee with skim milk120230
1 Cup Quaker Oatmeal – Plain                 4635300
Fage Greek Yogurt 0%fat w/raspberry  14013110
1 Banana – Medium 2401.3105
Subway 6 inch wheat turkey sandwich   421320380
Kind Bar          13138200
Gala Apple                150.20.377
Chipotle Chicken Bowl    621747600
Chipotle Chips – 4 oz.        65278570
Total  29273.2104.32372
% of Macronutrients      62%16%22%
Modified day contains     1381647

Sample 2 – somewhat unhealthy and also a little low on veggies.

                   Food                           Net Grams CarbsGrams FatGrams Protein Calories
Starbucks Skim Latte – Grande       19013130
Starbucks Muffin                  55126350
Panera Chicken Caesar salad162634440
Panera Potato chips              1682150
Panera Tomato Bisque          144.53110
Panera Iced green tea 20 oz.          3100130
2 slices cheese pizza              722222580
3 Fried Mozzarella Sticks      28231390
Greek Salad                          5174190
Haggen Daz Vanilla  Ice Cream 2 – Scoops18154224
Total                                       274137.5892694
% of Macro-nutrients            55%27%18%
Modified day contains          1641827

While doing this research I found it very difficult to get a true picture of sugar content.  This is because so many products are sweetened with sugar substitutes that are labeled as no sugar.  This certainly has an impact when consumed.  The impact is not easily calculated because a wide variety of sugar substitutes have not been put through research studies to determine their metabolic impact on our bodies.

In comparing the two days of eating above, both have some good carbs and some bad carbs. 

Sample 1 has more carbs and sample 2 has more fat with about 300 extra calories.  How could we modify this day of eating to be lower in carbs/sugar, and what is the benefit?  The benefit is tremendous: 

  1. As we consume foods high in carbs and sugar, our body becomes accustomed to consuming food that provides the most readily available energy.  When we burn through the energy our body tells our brain that it wants more.  This comes in the form of a craving or hunger.  It does not take a brain surgeon to figure out that when we are hungry we are more likely to eat than when we are not.  Eating carbs makes us hungrier more often.
  2. Most people consume more calories than they burn per day.  Unused carbs are converted to fat in one way or another.  The fat is a storage system of energy that gets used when we burn through our other readily available energy sources.  The storage of fat in our body is responsible for many diseases that can cause our body to break down over time, eventually leading to death.

In Sample 1, how could we eliminate half of our carbs and what would we replace them with?  I would skip the oatmeal for breakfast, the banana, and the chips.  This would eliminate 135 grams of carbs and 975 calories, bringing your net carbs down to 157 per day and your calories down to 1397 calories per day.  This carbs number is still a bit high for my liking, but the lower calorie count might leave you feeling too hungry.  To add a few calories, you could eat 12 almonds, adding 3 net carbs and 83 calories, and add 2 tablespoons of almond or peanut butter to your apple, adding 190 calories and 6 net grams of carbs.  Moving from high carb fruits or traditional breakfast foods such as oatmeal can make a huge difference in where your body gets its fuel from.  The yogurt you are eating for breakfast is more than enough energy for most people who work in an office and are not doing manual labor. 

In sample meal plan 2, to reduce half the carbs and find good caloric replacements to stave off hunger, I would suggest eliminating the morning muffin, the potato chips, the green tea, and the ice cream.  Eliminating these four items would reduce your net carbs to 154 and your calories to 1840.  Substituting 2 eggs (2 net grams carbs and 180 calories) for breakfast would be a healthy replacement for the muffin.  Dunkin Donuts makes a 12-net carb egg wrap that has 180 calories.  It is roughly half the calories and ¼ of the net carbs.  Substituting black coffee for the skim latte is a great way to reduce carb consumption.  Instead of adding sugar and using skim milk (which contains natural sugars), using almond milk is a good alternative.  In the next blog I will share a recipe for the best homemade almond milk ever.  Once you try it you will never go back to store bought.

I will follow up in future blogs with a few simple rules to help you keep your net carb intake down.  The best advice I have for everyone about eating healthy is to know what you are eating.  Information and data is incredibly powerful for decision making.  If you don’t know what that bagel or yogurt contains and how they impact your system, you can’t make educated decisions about what is best for you to consume the rest of the day.  I use the MyFitnessPal app to help me track what I eat.  It is very simple and gives you a great snapshot of a wide range of food-related information.