By Jill Ladd, MPH, RD, LD On May 2, 2018
Conduct a quick search for carbohydrates or carbs and you’ll likely end up confused about whether or not carbs are good for you. Several popular diets claim that carbohydrates are bad for your health and are associated with weight gain. However, science and evidence-based research show us that our bodies need carbohydrates to function. Not all carbs are created equal, though. Learn why some carbohydrates are better than others when it comes to your health.
Do We Need Carbs?
YES! Carbohydrates are an important energy source for our bodies! Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose, which is converted to energy and is used to support necessary function and fuel physical activity. Our red blood cells, brain and nerve cells primarily rely on glucose. This is why you can get hangry — tired, irritable and even shaky — when you haven’t eaten any carbohydrates for a while.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients that provide our bodies with energy (calories); the others are fat and protein. Plants make the most abundant form of carbohydrate, called glucose, through photosynthesis. Naturally occurring carbohydrates are found in plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, grains, seeds and legumes. Food manufacturers also add carbohydrates, such as starch and sugars, to processed foods and beverages.
Fun fact: Carbohydrate means “hydrated carbon” and the chemical abbreviation is CHO, which stands for its three main elements: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Not All Carbohydrates Are Created Equal
Carbohydrates are classified as simple or complex, and both can be part of a healthy diet.
Simple carbohydrates are commonly referred to as “sugars” and are naturally found in fruits, vegetables, milk and honey. In many processed foods, you’ll see simple carbohydrates in the form of high-fructose corn syrup and different types of sugars such as brown, powdered and table sugar. A healthy recommendation is to the get the majority of simple carbs from natural foods like fruits, vegetables and milk because they contain other important nutrients (vitamins, minerals, calcium) that support a healthy diet.
Complex carbohydrates include starch and fiber. Grains (wheat, rice, oats and barley), legumes (peas, beans and lentils) and vegetables (potatoes and yams) are excellent sources of starch. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasizes eating fiber-rich carbohydrates, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eating fiber-rich carbohydrates has been shown to reduce the overall risk for obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. But, not all complex carbohydrates are fiber-rich. For instance, refined grains are processed and, as a result, lose some of their nutrients and fiber. So, selecting whole-grains at least half the time will help contribute to a balanced diet.
Remember, all types of carbohydrates can be included in a healthful diet. However some, such as added sugars, should be consumed less often than others.
How Many Carbohydrates Should We Eat?
Carbohydrates should make up to 45 to 65 percent of our total energy intake. So, if you consume 2,000 calories in a day, 900 to 1,240 calories should come from carbohydrates. One gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories, which translates to getting 225 to 310 grams of carbohydrate per day. Total carbohydrates can be found on nutrition facts labels of processed food, but since produce doesn’t come with a nutrition label, this can be a little more complicated to track, I suggest using ChooseMyPlate as your guide. ChooseMyPlate is based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and illustrates the five food groups that are the building blocks for a healthy diet.
Caprese Pasta Salad Recipe
Try this Caprese Pasta Salad, made with whole-wheat pasta, which is a healthy source of complex carbohydrates that will help keep you full longer. One serving provides 31 grams of carbohydrate and 4 grams of fiber!