Carbs are a key part of a healthy diet, not to mention they're delicious! The carbs in your diet keep your cells and tissues -- including your muscles -- energized, and carbs also serve as the primary source of fuel for your brain. But while eating carbs is important, taking in too many can contribute to health problems -- from short-term discomfort to long-term chronic disease.
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Too Many Carbs, Too Many Calories
Unfortunately, carbs' delicious taste and comforting texture comes at a caloric price. Each gram of carbs contains 4 calories, and some of your favorite carb-rich foods contain dozens of grams of carbs -- which can add up to hundreds of calories. A cup of mashed potatoes, for example, has 237 calories, while a cup of whole-wheat macaroni contains 212 calories -- and that's before you add in calories for toppings or sauces. Even healthy sources of carbs, like wheat tortillas, can be high in calories -- an 8-inch tortilla has 146 calories.
Calories aren't inherently bad; they actually provide energy you need to stay active. But eating too many calories can lead to weight gain because your body will store any extra energy as fat. So while you won't need to forgo carbs, you'll want to practice portion control with carb-heavy foods to avoid exceeding your calorie budget for the day.
Effect of Excess Carbs on Blood Sugar
Eating too many carbs might also negatively impact your blood sugar levels. Normally, blood sugar serves as a source of energy for your cells -- your tissues can take up the sugar in your bloodstream and convert it into usable energy to fuel your active lifestyle. But refined carbs -- sugar or "white" carbs like white bread and pasta -- digest quickly and can cause a pronounced spike in your blood sugar levels. Your body responds by releasing hormones to lower your blood sugar levels but often ends up overcompensating and causing a blood sugar "crash" that leaves you feeling tired and hungry.
Over time, eating too many carbs can negatively affect your ability to control your blood sugar levels. People who eat a higher glycemic index diet -- one full of carb-rich foods that cause blood sugar spikes -- face a higher risk of developing type-2 diabetes, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Your best option? Select healthy sources of carbs -- like legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables -- instead of processed and refined ones, like sweets or white pasta. Healthy carbs are less likely to spike your blood sugar, and they're better for preventing type-2 diabetes.
Digestive Issues From Carbs
Those healthy carbs can be good for blood sugar control, but if you suddenly increase your intake, you might notice some digestive issues. Healthy sources of carbs typically come packed with dietary fiber, an indigestible carb that helps control blood sugar and helps you feel satisfied after a meal. Fiber also plays a key role in digestion because it loosens and softens your stool, which prevents constipation.
But you know what they say -- too much of a good thing isn't always so good. If you quickly and significantly boost your fiber intake, you risk having your stool become too soft, which can lead to diarrhea. Suddenly upping your fiber intake can also contribute to bloating and flatulence. And, ironically, getting tons of fiber without also drinking enough water can dry out your stool, causing constipation.
That doesn't mean you should avoid fiber-rich carbs. If you've been eating a relatively low-fiber diet, incorporate fiber-rich foods into your diet slowly to give your system time to adapt, and drink at least 64 ounces of water daily to avoid constipation. Add 5 grams to your daily diet, then increase the amount by an additional 5 grams every two weeks, until you reach the recommended 25 to 35 grams of fiber daily, recommends the University of Michigan Health System.
How Much Is Too Much?
How much food -- and how many carbs -- you need daily depends on a few factors, including your age, metabolism and activity level. Generally, you'll want to get between 45 and 65 percent of your calories from carbohydrates -- that translates to 203 to 293 grams of carbs daily in an 1,800-calorie diet. If you're eating significantly more than that, you might miss out on essential protein and fat, which help maintain lean muscle and aid in nutrient absorption, respectively. Talk to a registered dietitian if you're struggling to follow a balanced diet -- a dietitian can recommend a target carb intake personalized to your health and lifestyle, as well as supply a personalized meal plan to help you reach your goals.