TCM Classics — We originally ran this story on carbohydrate density in 2018 but loved it so much we decided to bring it back. There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the virtue of carbohydrates in a daily diet, and this breakdown from our fave celebrity nutritionist might just give you the perspective you need to make healthy balanced decisions…
We were far from surprised when our interview with celebrity nutritionist, Kelly LeVeque, turned into a full-blown nutrition lesson. We don’t just mean a few quick and easily digestible tips (although there were plenty of those), but a down and dirty piece of nutrition science — that involved math.
Kelly told us that when she’s reading nutrition labels, “I do one of two things: always look first for net carbohydrates, then from there I do a calculation for carbohydrate density.” Right.
Carb density? That’s news to us! In case carbohydrate density is new to you too (listen up, chickpea pasta lovers!), we’re breaking it down below and sharing with you why it matters…
What is Carbohydrate Density?The term “carbohydrate density” means the percent of the food mass that is carbohydrate minus the fiber component. According to Kelly, most high net carb food will end up as sugar in your body. Therefore, this number indicates how high your blood sugar will go and how much gut bacteria you’ll feed at one time.
In nature, it’s not normal for the food we eat to have over 30% carb density. Most carb-heavy vegetables will have a carbohydrate density well below that number. Modern food processing, however, is very effective at boosting carbohydrate density.
Kelly explained that if you take something — even something that’s natural — and have to make a flour first and then package it as something else, it may be too high in sugar to match the carb density of foods found in nature. Flour-based carbohydrates, also called “acellular carbohydrates,” have been stripped from their fiber cell and shown in research to promote an inflammatory microbiome, leading to insulin resistance, leptin resistance and obesity.
How To Calculate Carb Density
Carbohydrate density is determined by a straight-forward formula. It might seem super complicated at first, but it’s easy to get the hang of quickly. Subtract the grams of fiber from the grams of carbohydrates in a single serving of food and divide that number by the weight (in grams) of the food. This results in a percentage representing the food’s carbohydrate density. (Carbs minus fiber, divided by the total weight of the serving.) Kelly offered some examples:
Chickpea Pasta | Kelly calculated the carb density for a brand of gluten-free chickpea pasta she says many of her clients eat thinking it’s a better option than regular pasta. The total amount of carbohydrates for one serving, 2 ounces, is 32 grams. There are 8 grams of fiber. To calculate the net carbs, 32 minus 8 equals 24. This means there are 24 net carbohydrates for 57 total grams — divide that by 57 and that equals .42. This means one serving of chickpea pasta has 42% carb density.
sweet potato | For comparison, Kelly calculated the carb density of a starchy, whole vegetable. For sweet potatoes, 1 cup has 27 carbs and 4 grams of fiber. For 1 cup serving (always divide by grams) it would be 133 grams, which equals 23 net carbs. That number divided by 133 equals .17, which means one serving of sweet potatoes has 17% carb density.
The sweet potato’s low carbohydrate density makes it a better option, but what does that really mean? This number tells us that sweet potatoes are less likely to spike our blood sugar and leave us riding a wave of cravings. In addition to healthy carbohydrates, the sweet potato also offers 4 grams of fiber plus water-based vitamins. Compared to a plant-based but processed pasta, it’s clear what the winning choice is.
But… Why?Calculating carbohydrate density reveals the true nutritional value of the foods we’re eating. Our bodies need carbohydrates to function, but our guts aren’t equipped to process highly dense carbs — they do much better with carbs that are balanced out by a hefty dose of fiber. Kelly’s signature approach encourages you to build a plate with whole food “cellular” carbohydrates like fibrous vegetables and leafy greens. These aid in the proper proliferation of a healthy microbiome, decrease inflammation and increase short-chain fatty acid production for gut health. Kelly’s book Body Love explains how protein and fat — in combination with the right carbs — can also aid in slowing digestion, calming hunger hormones and elongating your blood sugar curve.
Not all carbs are the same. And things can get extra tricky when it comes to evaluating foods that are made to seem healthy, right?. A quick look at the numbers in this way can help equip us with the right information to make the best food decisions.
Discover more of our savviest label reading tips from pros we trust here.