Carbs are usually one of the first things to get the boot when you’re trying to shape up your diet. And it sort of makes sense: White bread, pasta, cake, and other sugar-crammed refined carbohydrates are notorious for nuking weight-loss efforts.
But if you start slashing too many carbs out of your daily meal plan—or get rid of them altogether—your overall health could be getting the short end of the stick.
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“Carbohydrates are a foundation of a healthy diet, providing a ready source of energy for all the body’s activities,” says Liz Blom, R.D., a Minnesota-based nutrition and wellness coach. “In addition to the energy carbohydrates provide, they are needed for building nonessential amino acids that the body uses to create proteins. They also help in the processing of fat and in the building of cartilage, bone, and the tissues of the nervous system.”
So exactly how many grams of carbohydrates do you have to consume each day to lose weight? Like carbs themselves, says Blom, the answer is both simple and complex. The simple part: Everyone needs carbohydrates. The complex part: Each individual’s ideal intake depends on a handful of factors, including age, sex, height, weight, activity level, genetics, and more.
As a rule of thumb, carbs should make up about 45 percent of your daily calories if you’re trying to lose weight, says Blom. To translate that into something you can actually measure, pin down how many calories you’re consuming each day, then calculate 45 percent of that number. Divide that number by four, and that’s how many grams of carbs you should have daily to lose weight. For example, if you’re on a 1,800-calorie diet, you should stick to 202 grams of carbohydrates per day.
With that in mind, you might have to make some modifications in order to find the sweet spot that works best for you, says Blom. She suggests starting at 45 percent and using a tool like MyFitnessPal to track your intake. If you don’t lose any weight after the first week, you can try going lower. “Some women may need to go lower than 45 percent,” says Blom. If you start losing weight but begin to feel super sluggish, try upping your carbohydrate intake a bit and see how you feel and how your weight responds.
And while it’s fine to go above 45 percent, make sure your carbohydrate intake doesn’t surpass 65 percent of your daily calorie intake, says Blom. “This will leave less room for protein and healthy fat intake, which will support satiety (feeling full) and other weight loss benefits,” she says.
The key to maintaining your carb control is to load up on wholesome varieties of carbohydrates, like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and even dairy products, and keep your portions in check, says Blom. These healthy sources of carbs are also packed with fibre, which fills you up faster and curbs your appetite better than pasta and doughnuts.
We’re not saying that you have to totally banish your favourite bread or pasta dish from the table. If you have to have it, just make sure you’re aware of how much of it you’re taking in, says Keri Gans, R.D.N., nutritionist and author of The Small Change Diet. “For example, you can definitely lose weight eating pasta. However, the bowl needs to have only one cup of cooked pasta with lots of veggies, and some protein.”
Once you’ve figured out your magic carb number, don’t forget to stretch it throughout your day to keep your blood sugar steady and your belly full of fiber. So if you eat five meals a day and you’re aiming to consume 202 grams of carbs per day, that shakes out to 40 grams of carbohydrates per meal. (That's more than the amount in one banana or a cup of cooked quinoa.) Who says you have to go no-carb to lose weight?
This article originally appeared on Womenshealthmag.com.