Are your clients going carb-free? Help them think again for healthy, active aging

by Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN

We all share the goal of helping 50+ individuals stay healthy and active. And, we all know that healthy aging is powered by nutrition and physical activity.

As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I am often asked what foods to eat to get the most out of exercise. It is disheartening when active people tell me that they have been told to give up carbs to be healthy. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet the carbs that most people enjoy – particularly things like bread and pasta – are often viewed as the fattening enemy. Assure your clients that they don’t have to sacrifice the foods they love; grain foods deliver needed carbs for active people!

Carbohydrate in foods comes in many forms: grains, fruit, vegetables, and even some dairy foods. Sugar is also a carbohydrate, and that may be where the confusion starts. Major health organizations urge adults to eat less sugar. But that recommendation targets refined and added sugar. It is not a recommendation to forego eating carbohydrate-rich foods that provide energy, fiber, and valuable nutrients to active adults! The late Mel Williams, a pioneer in nutrition and exercise, introduced his best-selling textbook by saying, “One of the most important nutrients in your diet, from the standpoint of both health and athletic performance, is dietary carbohydrate.”1

Aging Americans need to understand the whole story on carbohydrates, including bread and grains. Carbs are unique in that they are the only nutrient (compared to protein or fat) that can be used to power all kinds of exercise. From hour-long dance aerobics to powerlifting, muscles prefer carbohydrates as a fuel. It is readily stored in muscles and can be used quickly and efficiently to power through quick bursts of movement. Carbs are also stored in the liver and some circulate in the blood as blood sugar; both can be used to fuel longer bouts of exercise. Without sufficient carbohydrates, active people can have:

  • Lack of energy
  • Muscle fatigue and breakdown
  • Confused thinking and a lack of concentration
  • Inability to exercise at a higher intensity

How much carbohydrate is needed depends on activity level. Those who exercise at moderate intensity (such as step aerobics, body sculpting, pickleball, tennis, jogging, or circuit training) for an hour or more every day should aim for 2.3 to 3.0 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight to fuel activity. For those involved in lighter activity (for example, walking or recreational cycling), 1.3 to 2.3 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight is recommended.2 Grams of carbohydrate and fiber in commonly eaten foods are shown below.

How can you encourage the consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods in active adults? I recommend using the term “quality carbohydrates”; those are carbohydrate-rich foods with added benefits such as dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Examples include:

  • Grains found in bread, cereal, pasta, and rice will also provide fiber, B-vitamins, and some minerals such as magnesium, calcium, and iron.
  • Whole grains contain more fiber and plant compounds, so encourage clients to follow the Dietary Guidelines advice to make half their grains whole by looking for whole wheat, brown rice, or whole grain as the first ingredient. (For more on whole grains, see this infographic)
  • Vegetables, including starchy vegetables, such as corn, white and sweet potatoes, also provide fiber, vitamins and minerals.
  • Fruit, especially fresh fruit, while containing simple sugars, also contains water, fiber, and minerals such as potassium.
  • Dairy foods, such as milk, yogurt, and kefir, contain lactose or milk sugar, and are good sources of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and other nutrients.

Here are some suggestions for including carbohydrate-rich foods at every meal to fuel activity:

  • Breakfast: Whole grain cereal, berries, and Greek yogurt
  • Lunch: Turkey breast in a pita pocket with peppers, tomato, and spinach
  • Dinner: Grilled salmon, brown rice, and mixed vegetables
  • Snacks: Whole grain cereal bar, fresh fruit, yogurt, whole grain crackers and mozzarella cheese stick

Click here for recipes on fueling an active life.

So, remember: your clients don’t have to deprive themselves or their health of the vital nutrients in carbohydrates, including grains. Grain foods are the foods we love that love us back! Quality carbohydrates can help active adults sustain exercise, increase exercise intensity, provide needed nutrients, and make every meal taste great.


1 Mel Williams, 2010. Nutrition for Health, Fitness & Sport, 9th ed. McGraw-Hill Science, New York.

2 Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and Athletic Performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116:501-528.

Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference (Release 28, September 2015)
Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RDN, CSSD, is a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. She is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and works with athletes of all ages. She consults with health organizations and the food industry and commodity boards to promote healthy, active living (, and she is a member of The Ginger Network, a marketing and communications firm ( Her book, Food & Fitness After 50 (with co-author Bob Murray, Ph.D., FASCM) will be published in the fall of 2017 by Eatright Press.