Before reading on, take a guess.
I received this question from a person who was expecting a number, but that would have been an oversimplified response. This is a question that evokes many opinions and theories. My response to this question is based on epidemiology (a focus of my graduate program at UC Berkeley). Examples of high carbohydrate diets include China (rice), Egyptian civilizations (wheat) and American/Mexican Indians (corn and beans). Carbohydrates made up 75% to 80% of the diet of these people who had low chronic disease rates. Eskimo populations on the other hand ate 75% protein and fat, again, lean people with low chronic disease rates. In the US, about 50% of our diet is carbohydrates, but we are overweight, have high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, cancer and diabetes. Where are we going wrong?
I could tell by the nature of the question that this person, like most Americans, doesn’t know what carbohydrates are. A plain bagel, cinnamon roll, cookies and pasta are what come to mind for many people. However these aren’t carbs, they’re sugars. For those of you raising your eyebrows at that, bear with me, I do have something to teach you here. Technically sugar is a carb, but carbohydrates should represent 65% of our diet and sugar should represent only 10-15%. This is the distinction:
Top 5 “carb” sources in the US
Unprocessed grains (composition: 75% carbohydrates)
Beans (composition: 50% carbohydrates)
Vegetables (composition: 50% carbohydrates)
Fruit (composition: 80% carbohydrates)
Nuts (composition: 30% carbohydrates)
Skim milk (composition: 50% carbohydrates)
These carbs are rich in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals. They are low in fat, low in cholesterol and it takes a lot of energy to metabolize these calories. Recognize the difference between sugar and carbohydrates to make sure you are getting your 65% from the right sources.
Sugar Wake-up Call
The average American consumes 189 grams (or 47 teaspoons) of sugar every day! Before food manufacturing became commonplace (pre-Industrial Revolution) Americans consumed less than 15 grams of sugar per day. This picture shows 47 teaspoons of sugar compared with one teaspoon of nutmeg. Drastically decreasing your daily sugar intake can result in significant health benefits. Avoiding obvious sugar sources is easy, but keep in mind that added sugar is hidden in everything from cereal to pasta sauce. Reading nutrition labels is helpful.