I’m no Grinch out to ruin your Christmas, but don’t you agree that it’s easy to overeat (and drink) carbs during the fall and winter months? Carbohydrate is an abundant nutrient, and festive treats are all around us at stores, work, school, and gatherings. Shorter days and colder weather tend to keep us indoors more and less active. Don’t get me wrong — I love my share of carbs, but they’re simple to overconsume this time of year. The good news is: there are ways to balance pleasure for food and health this season and the next. For ideas on how to moderate your carb intake over the holidays, read on.
Note: This post shares general public health recommendations but does not offer individualized health advice, which is best given by your medical care providers.
|Table of Contents|
1. What Are Carbs?
2. How Much Carbohydrate Do We Need?
3. Which Holiday Foods & Drinks Contain Carbs?
4. How to Moderate Your Carb Intake
5. Closing Words
What Are Carbs?
The first step in moderating your carb intake is knowing what carbs are and which foods are highest in them.
Carbohydrate is one of the six nutrients (carbohydrate, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and water) and one of the three macronutrients (carbohydrate, fat, and protein). Like fat and protein, it is a molecule that provides energy. There are two major groups of carbohydrates — simple (added and naturally occurring sugars) and complex (fiber and starches).1 Both can be in one food. Except for fiber, all carbohydrates break down and turn to glucose in the body.1,2,3 Many names of sugars end with “-ose.” For example, fruits have fructose, grains have maltose, table sugars have sucrose, and dairy products have lactose. As you can see, most sugars come from plants. Lactose, on the other hand, is made in the milk glands of mammals, such as cows. Sugars may be added to products to thicken as well as sweeten them.2,3 Carbohydrate-rich foods, drinks, and ingredients are listed below.1,2,3
- fruits and fruit juices
- breads, cereals, noodles, and rice
- legumes and starchy vegetables
- milk and yogurt
- sweeteners and thickeners
- sweets and sweetened drinks
How Much Carbohydrate Do We Need?
The central nervous system and red blood cells2 rely on glucose for energy. Glucose in the bloodstream serves as immediate fuel for the cells, tissues, and organs. When levels are low, glycogen stored in the liver and muscles breaks down to glucose.1,2,3 The body needs carbohydrate, like the other energy-providing nutrients, to an extent. All calories, whether from carbohydrate, protein, or fat, convert to body fat when consumed in excess.2
The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrate is 130 grams per day, but this is based on the needs of the brain alone. The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for carbohydrate is 45-65% of calorie needs.2 One gram of carbohydrate supplies 4 calories.2,3 So if a person needs 2000 calories per day, 45-65% of this divided by 4 is 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrate per day. This split up between 3 meals per day is 75 to 108 grams of carbohydrate per meal.
Now, not everyone needs 2000 calories per day. Needs vary depending on age, sex, height, weight, preference, activity,2 and health.1 A person may need more calories from carbohydrate if they eat a plant-based diet or do a lot of exercise or physical work. People may need less total calories if they have to lose weight. They may need less and consistent amounts of carbohydrate from meal to meal if they tend to have high and fluctuating blood sugars.
To best meet nutritional needs, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends a variety of foods and drinks from the fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy (or fortified soy alternatives) groups as well as the protein and oils groups. They emphasize choices that are dense in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants, and have little to no added sugars, fat, and sodium.4
Which Holiday Foods & Drinks Contain Carbs?
Most holiday foods and drinks contain carbs, and many are refined or have added sugars. Sweeteners and thickeners may be hidden and have unfamiliar names on labels. They may not account for much per serving but can add up with extra helpings. Examples of high-carb holiday foods, drinks, and ingredients, as well as unrecognizable names for added sugars, are below.5,6
- Sweetened or thickened foods: glazed meats, gravies and soups thickened with cornstarch or flour, candied nuts and yams, cranberry sauce, honey butter, canned fruits and dressings sweetened with syrup
- Sweets and sweetened drinks: candy canes, chocolate truffles, gingerbread cookies, mousse or pudding, pumpkin pie, red velvet cake, apple cider, eggnog, hot cocoa, punch
- Bread, cereals, noodles, and rice: bread bites or chips for a dip, crackers for a cheese plate, croutons, corn bread, dinner rolls, stuffing, macaroni and cheese, risotto
- Legumes and starchy vegetables: beans, lentils, peas, potatoes, squash, yams
- Fruits: sliced fruits for a cheese plate, canned or dried fruits in salads
- Unrecognizable names for sugars: agave nectar, cane juice, corn or rice syrup, dextrin, dextrose, malt, maltodextrin, molasses, sorghum, treacle6
Now, if a person were to consume everything in the tables above, they would ingest 213 grams of carbohydrate at the Thanksgiving meal and 176 gm grams of carbohydrate at the Christmas meal. If their AMDR for carbohydrate is 225-325 grams per day, they would likely exceed this amount for the day. If they split this up into 75-108 grams of carbohydrate per meal, they would exceed this amount for the meal.
How to Moderate Your Carb Intake
Here are ways to moderate your carb intake at home, on the go, and at gatherings over the holidays.
- Estimate your calorie needs and AMDR for carbohydrate. You can do this by getting an example plan here and dividing 45-65% of your estimated calorie needs by 4.
- Eat your carbs instead of drink them. Avoid sweetened beverages. Drink water.
- Read and interpret food and beverage labels. Note that the amounts per serving are based on the serving size, the total carbohydrate includes fiber and sugars (added and naturally occurring),3 other names for sugars may be listed,6 and ingredients are listed from heaviest to lightest.7 Also, a percent daily value (%DV) of 20 or more means a product is high in a nutrient, and a %DV of 5 or less means it is low.3
- Prioritize nutrient-dense carbs. Select products that have a %DV of 20 or more for fiber,8 and 5 or less for added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium.9 Choose whole fruits and grains, vegetables, beans, peas, lentils, and lean dairy products (or fortified soy alternatives). To get an example meal plan, go here.
- Measure and eyeball portions. Measure foods and beverages at first to get familiar with portions, then eyeball them later. Objects and your hand can be used to estimate, too. Three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards, 1 cup is about the size of a baseball, ½ cup is about the size of a tennis ball, a tablespoon is about the size of a thumb, and a teaspoon is about the size of the tip of an index finger (up to the first joint).10 A visual guide for a meal can be found here.11
- Consider requesting non-food gifts if family and friends ask. If they still want to give you an edible present, suggest low-carb ones, such as jerky and nuts.
On the Go and At Gatherings
- Eat before leaving home and joining the festivities. Don’t run errands on an empty stomach and risk having a voracious appetite for sugar, salt, and fat. Have a balanced meal beforehand and consider carrying a balanced snack and a water bottle.
- Order a kid’s size meal or share a regular one if eating out.
- Consider bringing a dish to eat and share at get-togethers. Bring your favorite, low-carb, nutrient-dense one.
- Budget your carbs. Determine your allowance in advance and decide how you’re going to spend it.
- Be mindful. Watch out for those bowls of treats on the side. Sample and taste but don’t forget to stop. Remember that eating in front of a TV rather than at a dining table and drinking alcohol can make you less aware of your intake.
- Portion and balance your carbs. Consider having a little bit of everything or having a full portion of a few things and bringing the rest home for later. This lowers your carb load, keeps you from missing out, and helps reduce waste. Balance with protein and non-starchy vegetables.
Carbs are widespread among foods — especially during the holidays. However, it is feasible to enjoy all kinds throughout the season in moderation. It’s important to remember that we all need carbs as well as fat and protein to a point, and not everyone has access to them or healthy ones. If you can, donate to your local food bank. Non-perishable foods that haven’t passed their sell-by or use-by dates and have intact packaging are needed. Brown rice, whole grain pasta, peanut butter, and canned beans, fish, fruits, soups, stews, or vegetables are best.12
Did you learn anything new about carbs or get any new ideas for how to moderate your carb intake over the holidays? Which ones are your favorite, in general, and which ones must you treat yourself to this season and the next? Which balance techniques have worked for you? Leave a reply, pin for later, or share this post below 🙂
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- National Institutes of Health U.S. National Library of Medicine. MedlinePlus: Carbohydrates. https://medlineplus.gov/carbohydrates.html
- Slavin, J. and Carlson, J. (2014). “Nutrition Information: Carbohydrates.” American Society for Nutrition. Advances in Nutrition. 5, 760-761.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Interactive Nutrition Facts Label. Total Carbohydrate. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/interactivenutritionfactslabel/total-carbohydrate.cfm
- U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
- University of California San Francisco Sugar Science The Unsweetened Truth. Hidden in Plain Sight. https://sugarscience.ucsf.edu/hidden-in-plain-sight/#.YZal09DMKF5.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. FoodData Central, 2019. fdc.nal.usda.gov.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Interactive Nutrition Facts Label. Ingredient List. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/interactivenutritionfactslabel/ingredient-list.cfm
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Interactive Nutrition Facts Label. Dietary Fiber. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/interactivenutritionfactslabel/dietary-fiber.cfm
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Interactive Nutrition Facts Label. Total and Added Sugars. https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/interactivenutritionfactslabel/added-sugars.cfm
- Ellis, E. (2018). “Serving Size vs Portion Size Is There a Difference?” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/nutrition-facts-and-food-labels/serving-size-vs-portion-size-is-there-a-difference
- USDA MyPlate U.S. Department of Agriculture. What is My Plate? https://www.myplate.gov/eat-healthy/what-is-myplate
- Morello, P. (2020). “What to donate to a food bank and what to avoid.” Feeding American Hunger Blog. https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-blog/what-donate-food-bank-and-what-avoid