I think I can say, hands down, that it is best to get your carbs primarily from vegetables and whole-grain sources–those are some of the Big Rocks of my Practical Nutrition practices.
Practical Nutrition is my name for eating in a balanced, sustainable, satiating way that focuses on counting portions of food throughout the day rather than calories or macronutrients (carbs, proteins, fats).
To establish how many portions we need, however, it does often help to start by understanding your caloric needs and the proportions of macronutrients that would best meet your needs.
Everyone’s needs vary slightly in terms of what ratio of carbs:protein:fat supports their physiological needs effectively, and the needs of people with specific health issues (diabetes or a thyroid condition, for instance) will vary dramatically from the average person’s needs, which will also vary dramatically from an athlete’s needs. It is always best to consult a physician, certified nutritionist or registered dietician to establish what percentages or ratios of your overall caloric intake should be coming from carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Another resource you can use to begin figuring out what macronutrient ratios work best for you is by using the body type eating approach.
I’m not a certified nutritionist or registered dietician; I am a Health Coach, Certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. As such, it is my job to help educate people about how to make practical, healthy choices and changes in their daily and weekly nutrition practices (aka: diet).
The first step: Learning what the macronutrients are, where to get them (which foods you find them in), how much of each macronutrient you need each day (roughly!), how to transform that number of grams into number of servings, and then translate the number of servings needed of those macronutrients into real food choices.
In the blog post Carbs: Not just Twinkies and Wonder Bread, we talked about simple and complex carbohydrates briefly, focusing primarily on whole-grain and vegetable sources of complex carbohydrates. What we didn’t cover was the topic of fruits and other sweets and treats. So here we go!
Gimme the Good Stuff: Fruits
At the end of the day, if we don’t like what we eat, we won’t keep eating that way for long (hence the satisfying and satiating aspect of Practical Nutrition), so it’s important to structure your daily and weekly nutritional intake in a way that meets the needs of your physiology AND your tastebuds. Fruit is a great tool for meeting both needs.
While the majority of your carb needs should ideally come from vegetables and whole grains and legumes, fruits have their place in the equation–just not as primary of a role.
Generally, the ratio of veggies:fruits recommended in the diet (because of calorie and sugar content considerations with fruit) is 3:1 for the average person, and 5:1 for someone who is more carbohydrate sensitive (Precision Nutrition). If you’re eating the recommended amount of 5 servings of veggies a day, that’s either roughly two or only one serving of fruit. BONUS: If you’re getting in more than just the recommended number 5 servings of veggies, you’re able to get more fruits in, too!
The thing to be cognizant of is the sugar content of a serving of fruit–and how the size of that serving varies based upon the fruit. The higher the sugar content, the higher the carbohydrate content (because carbs are all some form of sugar), and the smaller the recommended serving size. For example, a half cup of fresh berries would have roughly 3.5 grams of sugar, but a half cup of raisins would have 61 grams.
Sugar in Fruits, Lowest to Highest
1. Berries – Berries are, in general, the fruits lowest in sugar — and also among the highest in antioxidants and other nutrients.
2. Summer Fruits – Melons, peaches, nectarines, and apricots are next in sugar-order.
4. Tropical Fruits – Pineapple, pomegranates, mangoes, bananas, and fresh figs are high in sugar (guava and papaya are lower than the others).
5. Dried Fruit – Dates, raisins, apricots, prunes, figs, and most other dried fruits are extremely high in sugar. Dried cranberries and blueberries would be lower, except that a lot of sugar is usually added to combat the tartness.
But what IS a real serving size of fruit??
>For solid fruits like apples, oranges and pears, it is one whole, medium sized piece (medium being the size of a baseball), the carb content ranging from 15-30 grams.
>For grapes, it’s 1/2 cup, and that half cup has roughly 14 grams of carbs.
>For berries, it’s one cup (sliced if they are large, like strawberries) with the carb content ranging from 12 to 20 grams.
>For dried fruits like dates, apple slices, apricots and prunes (everyone’s favorite, lol), you often count by piece.
>For other dried fruits like raisins, a serving is measured in tablespoons*
This is an example of where I start to move from counting the grams of carbohydrates towards servings of foods instead, because when we’re planning our daily nutrition practices, we don’t want to waste precious mental energy on counting and calculating carbs–we just need to know what one reasonable portion is. This way we can easily keep our intake in balance without the stress of constant mental math.
Your takeaway: Get familiar with how much of your favorite fruits equals one serving, and start working that 3:1 or 5:1 ratio of veggies:fruits to keep your diet (nutrient intake) varied and satisfying!
(*For more information on the carbohydrate content of various foods, including breads, pastas, fruits and treats you can find more information here.)