The answer depends on your body and health goals. Here’s how to figure out your target range.
Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in recent years. Several trendy diet plans promise that you’ll lose weight and get healthier by cutting back on carbs. In some cases, that might be true. But carbs aren’t all bad. In fact, they’re your body’s most important source of energy.
After you eat carbs, your digestive system converts them into glucose (blood sugar), which is then used to power your cells, tissues, and organs. Excess sugar is stored in your liver and muscles for when your body needs it. If you don’t eat for a few hours, your body will start tapping this stored glucose for energy.
However, if you overindulge in carbs, your body creates more glucose than it can use, and that excess is eventually stored as fat. This leads to weight gain.
On the other hand, if you don’t eat enough carbs, your body will use protein for energy—taking it away from other important roles in your body, such as building muscle and repairing tissue.
Carbohydrates also help with proper brain function, says Sonya Angelone, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That’s why people who go on low-carb diets sometimes report feeling a little foggy-headed.
When it comes to carbs, your goal is to find your Goldilocks amount: not too much, not too little—just right.
So How Many Carbs Should You Eat Daily?
According to the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults in their 50s and older generally should get about 130 grams of carbohydrates per day. That translates to anywhere from 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. (Click here to find out how many calories you should be eating per day.)
If you’re overweight or have diabetes, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian. It might be a good idea for you to eat fewer carbs or to cut down on specific types, because all carbs are not created equal. Check with your health plan about benefits, plus learn more about Medicare nutrition therapy services for diabetes here.
3 Types of Carbohydrates You Should Know
There are three kinds of carbs: starches, sugar, and fiber.
Starches include grain-based foods (bread, pasta, rice); beans; and starchy vegetables like corn and potatoes. Within the grain category, there are two subtypes: whole and refined grains. Whole grains like brown rice and whole wheat bread are less processed and contain more nutrients than refined grains like white bread and white rice. They also have more fiber (another type of carb), which can help you avoid constipation, Angelone says.
The majority of carbs you eat should fall into the whole grains category, not the refined stuff.
Sugar includes added sugar like in desserts and packaged foods as well as natural sugar found in fruit, dairy, whole grains, and even vegetables such as beets and corn. When we talk about sugar’s negative health consequences, we’re generally talking about added sugars, which add calories but no nutritional value.
The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons, or 25 grams, of added sugar per day. For men, the limit is nine teaspoons, or 36 grams. But most people are eating way more than that—more like 20 teaspoons, or 80 grams, per day.
Your move: Consider sugary foods occasional treats rather than mainstays of your diet. And check out our guide to six simple ways to eat less sugar—without giving up dessert.
If you’re managing diabetes, your doctor or dietitian may also recommend monitoring your intake of natural sugars, such as those from fruit.
Fiber is the part of plant foods that your body doesn’t digest, and it helps keep your heart and digestive system healthy. It’s also especially important if you’re taking any meds that might slow down your digestive system, like pain pills for conditions such as arthritis or nerve pain, says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet.
Most older adults aren’t getting nearly enough fiber, so this is one type of carb you probably don’t need to scale back on. The National Academy of Medicine recommends that women 51 and older consume at least 21 grams a day, and men 30 grams.
An Important Reminder
The guidelines are just that: guidelines. “They’re a good place to start,” Angelone says.
If you’re following these general carb recommendations and still aren’t reaching your goals or feeling your best, ask your doctor or a registered dietitian for guidance. They should be able to give you advice on adjustments that make sense for you.
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