Whether you are trying to lose weight, gain weight, or just maintain a healthy lifestyle, carbohydrates play a big role in your eating habits. Why do carbohydrates sometimes get a bad reputation? Are carbs misunderstood? Let’s review the basics.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are a macronutrient just like protein and fats. They are one of the main ways our body obtains energy. They can be categorized into three groups: sugars, starches and fibers (See the chart listed below) and can be found in a variety of foods such as grains, dairy, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. Sometimes carbohydrates get grouped with sugary desserts and other unhealthy treats, but carbs also play an essential role in a healthy diet. Eating the right kinds of carbohydrates can provide many essential nutrients and a fulfilling meal. The U.S department of Agriculture recommends that the average adult eats a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrates in a day.
Starches are the first type of carbohydrate that we will review. They are a complex carbohydrate, meaning that they are made of many molecules and break down into multiple kinds of sugar. This contrasts with sugar, which is a simple carbohydrate and only breaks into one or two kinds of sugar. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down in our bodies, providing a steady release of energy until our next meal and making us feel full for longer periods of time.
Starches are most commonly found in vegetables such as peas, corn, and potatoes, and in grains such as oats, barley, and wheat. According to MyPlate, bread is the most commonly consumed starch in the United States.
Grains can be tricky because there are two kinds to pay attention to: refined and unrefined. Refined grains are grains that have been milled. This process removes the bran and the germ of the grain leaving the soft inner part called the endosperm. This makes the grains softer and have a longer shelf life. However, the refinement process removes important nutrients. The bran, which is the grain’s outer shell, contains most of the grain’s fiber and B-vitamins. The germ, which is the grain’s middle layer contains lots of fatty acids, iron, and Vitamin E. The U.S. department of Agriculture recommends ¼ of your plate to have whole grains on it.
Fiber passes through your body without being digested. So why should we eat something that we can’t digest? Well, it helps our bodies process all the other sugars that we eat and regulate our blood sugar, cholesterol, and hunger. Fiber fills up our stomachs and gives us that satisfied feeling after a meal. It also helps the food move through the digestive system properly to prevent constipation. The recommended daily allowance for fiber is between 25-30 grams, however most Americans only consume about half that. Fiber can only be found in plant foods such as oatmeal, beans, lentils, nuts, apples, blueberries, brown rice, whole grain bread, carrots, and tomatoes. Eating fiber also helps to lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
This is the third type of carbohydrate and is the carbohydrate that is known for being fast-acting. Since it is a simple carbohydrate, it breaks down quickly in the body, giving us more immediate energy. Naturally occurring sugars are found in fruit as fructose, or in milk as lactose, while added sugars are sometimes harder to identify. These sugars have many names on nutrition labels. These include brown sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, fruit juice concentrates, honey, molasses, and syrup. The US department of agriculture recommends that less than 10 percent of your daily calorie intake comes from added sugars. It is important to moderate the added sugars in one’s diet because these are often thought of as “empty calories” — calories consumed that have little nutritional value. Candy and soda pop are two examples of less nutrient-dense foods that are high in added sugar.
Common myth: Do Carbs make us fat?
Carbohydrates are an entire diverse food group. Eaten in moderation they are part of a healthy diet. Consuming too many calories of ANY food can lead to weight gain, including the other macronutrient groups of fats and proteins. Rather than focusing on cutting carbohydrates from your diet, replace simple or refined carbohydrates with carbohydrates dense in nutrients: foods with fiber, whole grains, and lots of vitamins and minerals, and be sure to pay attention to portions and serving sizes.
When someone says, “Carbs are bad” or “I should eat less Carbs,” what they really should say is “Choose better sources of nutrient-dense carbohydrates” or “I should eat less food /calories.” It’s not the kind of macronutrient that causes weight gain, it is the number of calories consumed. Remember, consuming more calories than you burn off is the actual cause of weight gain.
American Heart Association. (2015, March 9). Types of Carbohydrates.
American Heart Association. (2017, April 17). Sugar 101.
Harvard. (2017, March 21). Carbohydrates.
Harvard. (2018, June 06). Fiber.
United States Department of Agriculture. (2015, June 12). Nutrients and health benefits.
United States Department of Agriculture. (2016, November 09). What are added sugars?
United States Department of Agriculture. (2017, November 03). All about the Grains Group.