Carbohydrates are one of the main nutrients in our diet. They help provide energy for our body. There are three main types of carbohydrates found in foods: sugars, starches, and fiber.
People with diabetes often need to count the amount of carbohydrates they eat to ensure a consistent supply throughout the day.
Starches; Simple sugars; Sugars; Complex carbohydrates; Diet - carbohydrates; Simple carbohydrates
Your body needs all three forms of carbohydrates to function properly.
Sugars and most starches are broken down by the body into glucose, which then circulates in the blood to be used as energy.
Fiber is the part of food that is not broken down by the body. There are two types of fiber. Insoluble fiber adds bulk to your stools so you stay regular. Soluble fiber helps lower cholesterol levels and can help improve blood glucose control. Both types of fiber can help you to feel full and stay at a healthy weight.
Many different types of foods contain one or more type of carbohydrate.
Sugars, or simple carbohydrates, occur naturally in these nutrient-rich foods:
Some foods have added sugar. Many packaged and refined foods contain added sugar. These include:
Refined grains with added sugar provide calories, but they lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Because they lack nutrients, these foods provide "empty calories" and can lead to weight gain. Try to minimize your intake of foods with added sugars.
Starches are also know as complex carbohydrates. These nutrient-rich foods are high in starch. Many are also high in fiber:
Refined grains, such as those found in pastries, white bread, crackers, and white rice also contain starch. However, they lack B vitamins and other important nutrients unless they are marked "enriched." Foods made with refined or "white" flour also contain less fiber and protein than whole-grain products and do not help you feel as satisfied.
High-fiber foods include:
Most processed and refined foods, enriched or not, are low in fiber.
Eating too many carbohydrates in the form of processed, starchy, or sugary foods can increase your total calories, which can lead to weight gain. It can also lead you to not consume enough fat and protein.
Severely restricting carbohydrates can cause ketosis. This is when the body uses fat for energy because there are not enough carbohydrates from food for the body to use for energy.
It is best to get most of your carbohydrates from whole grains, dairy, fruits, and vegetables rather than refined grains. In addition to calories, whole foods provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
By making smart food choices, you can get the full range of healthy carbohydrates and plenty of nutrients:
Here is what is considered "1 serving" of carbohydrate-rich foods according to the USDA (www.choosemyplate.gov/):
The food guide plate recommends filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, and one-third of your plate with grains, at least half of which are whole grains.
Here is a sample 2,000-calorie menu with healthy carbohydrate choices:
Smoked turkey sandwich, made with 2 ounces (55 grams) whole-wheat pita bread, 1/4 cup (12 grams) romaine lettuce, 2 slices tomato, 3 ounces (85 grams) sliced smoked turkey breast.
Baynes JW. Carbohydrates and lipids. In: Baynes JW, Dominiczak MH, eds. Medical Biochemistry. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2019:chap 3.
Bhutia YD, Ganapathy V. Digestion and absorption of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 102.
Maqbool A, Parks EP, Shaikhkhalil A, Panganiban J, Mitchell JA, Stallings VA. Nutritional requirements. In: Kliegman RM, St. Geme JW, Blum NJ, Shah SS, Tasker RC, Wilson KM, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 21st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 55.
US Department of Health and Human Services and US Department of Agriculture. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. health.gov/our-work/food-nutrition/previous-dietary-guidelines/2015. Updated August 24, 2021. Accessed May 27, 2022.
Reviewed By: Meagan Bridges, RD, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.