All About the RDA for Carbs and How to Optimize It

Here's how to optimize your daily carb intake to fuel your body, even if weight loss is your goal.
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If you're like most people, carbohydrates make up a significant portion of your diet — and that's a good thing!

Your body needs carbohydrates for functioning, but some sources are healthier than others.

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There's no one-size-fits-all approach to the number of carbs you need daily, and the recommended dietary guidelines allow some leeway so you can find a carb intake that works for you.

The smallest amount of carbs you should get each day is 130 grams, the recommended dietary allowance established by the Institute of Medicine, per LibreTexts.

This amount is based on the fact that carbs are the body's primary energy source. In other words, 130 grams keeps you alive but isn't necessarily ideal for peak health or an active lifestyle. In addition to lacking glucose for your daily activity, a limit of 130 grams means you're probably not eating enough food to get all the nutrients you need from healthy complex carbohydrates.

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The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range, or AMDR, defines the normal carb intake as determined by the Institute of Medicine. It recommends getting 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories from energy-providing carbohydrates.

So if you eat 2,000 calories per day, aim for 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates each day.

The Role of Carbohydrates

Your body breaks carbohydrates down into glucose (sugar) and uses it for energy. There are many different types of carbs, so it's important to choose the carbs that give you the most bang for your buck in terms of fiber and nutrients like vitamins and minerals, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA).

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Processed foods provide very little nutrition and fiber for the amount of carbs you're getting, so the ADA recommends opting for foods that are either not processed or minimally processed instead.

The three main types of carbs are starches, sugars and fibers. Starches and fibers are complex carbs, based on their chemical structure, whereas sugars are simple carbs.

Starch

Starchy foods include peas, potatoes, corn, beans and grains like oats, barley, wheat and rice, among others. Whole grains are grains that have been dried and harvested with minimal processing, leaving the entire grain intact.

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They provide fiber as well as nutrients like vitamins B and E. The USDA recommends that at least half your daily intake of grains should be from whole grains.

Sugar

Sugars are of two types: the naturally occurring sugars in milk (lactose) and fruits (fructose) and the added sugars that are found in cakes, cookies, sweets, sauces and other processed foods — sugars added during food preparation or manufacturer processing.

Common added sugars are corn syrup, brown sugar, white sugar, fructose and dextrose.

Limit your intake of added sugars to no more than 25 percent of your total daily calories, per LibreTexts.

Fiber​

Fiber, another type of carbohydrate, is only found in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and legumes. The ADA recommends getting 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day; but most Americans get only half that. The equivalent of a natural scrub brush, fiber sweeps out the rubbish from your digestive system.

Healthy carbs are not only an essential part of a healthy diet — they can help you lose weight, too. The Texas A&M Health Science Center notes that complex carbs with longer chain molecules and fiber take longer to digest, keeping you full for longer.

While added sugar is a culprit when it comes to weight gain, natural sugars can be a healthy addition to your diet because they come with lots of vitamins and minerals.

Choosing Healthy Carbohydrates

Carbs may seem like your worst enemy when it comes to weight loss, but the truth is it's all about building a healthy relationship with them. The key is to understand how much you should be eating per day and that the type of carb you eat is just as important as the amount.

High-glycemic carbohydrates contain simple sugars without enough complex starch and fiber to offset the rapid digestion of sugar. These carbs — foods with added sugar and processed flour or rice, such as sodas, pastries, white breads, candy and other sweets — are quickly digested and spike blood sugar.

Sure, they give you a short-lived boost of energy, but it's followed by a dip in blood sugar that leaves you fatigued and hungry, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables contain simple sugar plus starch and fiber. They're slowly digested so you get sustained energy without big swings in blood sugar.

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Carb and Calorie Intake for Weight Loss

If you're looking to lose weight, try to avoid going under 130 grams of carbs per day — the minimum recommended dietary allowance established by the Institute of Medicine. Instead, focus on the quality of carbs and calories you're eating.

A calorie is a unit of energy, so when you say a large strawberry has 5.76 calories, that's how much energy it is giving your body. But, the calories in the strawberry are also accompanied by essential nutrients like potassium, vitamin C and folate, as well as fiber.

Because the food you eat provides your body with not only energy (calories) but also nourishment, it's important to choose foods that are nutritious. Junk foods and fast foods contain a lot of calories, oil, sugar and salt, but not much nutrition, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Getting the nutrition you need at an appropriate calorie level is the key to not only staying healthy and preventing chronic diseases but also achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, according to the USDA. Fulfill your daily calorie requirement via a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and healthy fats.

The exact number of calories you should be eating per day varies from person to person, based on a number of factors like age, gender, height, weight, genetics, body fat percentage, diet and physical activity level, among others.

The USDA has developed estimates that can help guide you: 1,600 to 2,400 calories a day for adults assigned female at birth (AFAB) and 2,000 to 3,000 calories a day for adults assigned male at birth (AMAB).

Cutting down on the number of calories you eat is OK as long as your calorie intake doesn't drop below the minimum requirement, which is 1,500 calories per day for people AMAB and 1,200 calories per day for people AFAB, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

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