Carbohydrates are one of the three main energy-supplying nutrients in food. Compared to protein and fat, your body uses carbohydrates as its main source of energy, powering everything you do—from walking, working and climbing stairs to breathing, thinking and digesting your food. That’s why not getting recommended amounts of carbohydrates can make you feel sluggish and less able to concentrate.
Carbohydrates are the starches, fiber and sugars in foods. You’ll find carbohydrates in many staple foods, including grain-based foods, vegetables, legumes, fruits and milk products, as well as in sweetened foods, including many beverages, sweets and desserts, and in foods to which starches, fiber or sugars are added for functional purposes, such as color, texture or nutrition. Except for fiber, all carbohydrates, including sugars, fuel the body with the same amount of energy: 4 calories in each gram of carbohydrate. In fact, once digested, your body cannot distinguish between starches and sugars—the reason is that our bodies digest (break down) starches to glucose (a building block of sugar).
Getting to Know Your Carbohydrates
Starches, also known as complex carbohydrates, are found in grains and grain products (e.g., cereals, crackers, bread), legumes (e.g., lentils, kidney beans, cooked dried peas), and vegetables (e.g., carrots, sweet potatoes, corn). These foods are often rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, and may help lower risk of cancer, heart disease and some other health problems. Complex carbohydrates that have been refined, such as white bread and regular rice, have most of the fiber removed. Whole grain foods, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-grain crackers, rolled oats and brown rice, are made with the entire grain and generally contain more fiber and other key nutrients.
Sugars, also known as simple carbohydrates, are often considered “discretionary” choices. For example, table sugar, honey and pancake syrup are sugars that provide mostly calories and few nutrients. But other sugars found naturally in milk (lactose), fruits (fructose) and some vegetables (sucrose) keep good company because foods that naturally contain these sugars also come with other important nutrients, like calcium and other essential vitamins and minerals in milk, and a variety of nutrients and fiber in fruits and vegetables.
Fiber is often referred to as the “roughage” that works in your body to help keep you regular. But fiber also has other important roles in health, including helping to maintain healthy blood cholesterol levels and stable blood glucose levels. It can also help with weight management because fiber makes you feel full, so it’s easier to feel satisfied with fewer calories. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate, but it is unique because it does not supply energy. The fact that the body cannot digest fiber is what makes it good for your health—and your waistline. Most people eat only 12 to 15 grams of fiber per day, which is barely half the recommended daily amount of fiber per day (about 14 grams per 1000 calories or 25-38 grams for adult women and men, respectively).
Building a Healthy Plate with Carbohydrates
The key to building a healthy plate with the right types and amounts of carbohydrates is to follow the US Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate advice. You may already be eating enough carbohydrates, but chances are you can make some improvements in the quality of your carbohydrates. One simple step is to switch some of your choices to whole grain varieties of bread, pasta, cereals and crackers. It may also mean fitting in more fruits and vegetables, including legumes. The good news is that when you make smart carbohydrate choices, fiber and other nutrients often follow along.
Here are a few tips to help you build a diet that’s well-balanced, providing recommended amounts of good-for-you carbohydrates and fiber, along with lean protein and healthy fats.
- Eat MORE: carbohydrates that supply fiber, such as whole grains, products made with whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes (cooked dry beans and peas).
- Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Most fruits and vegetables are relatively low in calories and supply vitamins and minerals; they also contribute water and fiber, which helps to suppress hunger and increase a sense of fullness.
- Make at least half your grains whole. To get the most from your grain food choices, at least three of your grain servings should be whole grain (about 16 grams whole grain per serving or a total of at least 48 grams of whole grain per day). Examples of whole grain foods include whole wheat bread, brown rice, oatmeal, barley, crackers or breakfast biscuits baked with whole grain, whole grain cereal or popcorn. To find a whole grain food, look to see if a whole grain, such as whole wheat or rolled oats, is listed as the first ingredient.
- Get to know legumes. Legumes like kidney or black beans, cannellini beans, pinto beans, chickpeas and split peas are easy to keep on hand (especially canned varieties) and add color, texture and fiber to pasta, soups, stews and salads. You can also mash cooked legumes and add them to burgers, meat loaf, chili or tacos.
- Eat ENOUGH: Low-fat and fat-free milk and milk products, lean meats, skinless poultry, fish, eggs and nuts. These foods supply protein along with other essential nutrients, including healthy oils in fish and mostly unsaturated fats in nuts.
- 3-a-day of low-fat or nonfat dairy. Everyone over age 9 should get 3 daily servings of dairy—milk, yogurt and cheese—preferably low-fat or nonfat. In addition to providing calcium for strong bones, dairy products also supply other nutrients that many people fall short on. For example, some dairy foods provide vitamin D (check the Nutrition Facts for more information).
- Vary your protein food choices. Protein helps you maintain muscle and makes meals more satisfying. The key is choosing leaner and lower fat protein foods, watching your portions and using low-fat cooking methods such as broiling, baking or grilling for meats, poultry and fish.
- Eat LESS: High-energy, low-nutrient carbohydrates such as sugary desserts, pastries, regular soft drinks and candy. These foods contain calories while offering few or no nutrients. Check the food label for information on your choices.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to choosing carbohydrates, make your choices work for you. Opt for fruits, vegetables, low- or nonfat dairy foods, whole grains and foods made with whole grains. Remember that carbohydrates provide fuel for your busy lifestyle, so choose wisely and plan on including recommended amounts of carbohydrate-containing foods as part of your meals and snacks.