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Carbohydrates

Starches; Simple sugars; Sugars; Complex carbohydrates; Diet - carbohydrates; Simple carbohydrates

 

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.

Function

 

Your body needs all three forms of carbohydrates to function properly.

Sugars and starches are broken down by the body into glucose (blood sugar) to be used as energy.

Fiber is the part of food that is not broken down by the body. Fiber helps you to feel full and can help you stay at a healthy weight.

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.

 

Food Sources

 

Many different types of foods contain one or more type of carbohydrate.

SUGARS

Sugar occurs naturally in these nutrient-rich foods:

  • Fruits
  • Milk and milk products

Some foods have added sugar. Many packaged and refined foods contain added sugar. These include:

  • Candy
  • Cookies, cakes, and pastries
  • Regular (non-diet) carbonated beverages, such as soda
  • Heavy syrups, such as those added to canned fruit

Refined foods 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. It's best to eat foods without added sugar.

STARCHES

These nutrient-rich foods are high in starch. Many are also high in fiber:

  • Canned and dried beans, such as kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, split peas, and garbanzo beans
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, green peas, and parsnips
  • Whole grains, such as brown rice, oats, barley, and quinoa

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.

FIBER

High-fiber foods include:

  • Whole grains, such as whole wheat and brown rice as well as whole-grain breads, cereals, and crackers
  • Beans and legumes, such as black beans, kidney beans, and garbanzo beans
  • Vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, corn, potato with skin
  • Fruits, such as raspberries, pears, apples, and figs
  • Nuts and seeds

Most processed and refined foods, enriched or not, are low in fiber.

 

Side Effects

 

Eating too many carbohydrates in the form of processed, starchy, or sugary foods can cause an increase in total calories. This can lead to weight gain.

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.

 

Recommendations

 

It is best to get most of your carbohydrates from whole foods. 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:

  • Choose a variety of unprocessed foods. These include whole grains, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, canned or fresh beans and legumes, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products.
  • Read labels on canned, packaged, and frozen foods to avoid added sugar, salt, and fat.
  • Make half of your grain servings per day from whole grains.
  • If you eat refined grains, make sure they are enriched.
  • Choose whole fruits and 100% fruit juices with little to no added sugar. Make at least half of your daily fruit servings from whole fruits.
  • Limit sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and alcohol. Limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day.

Here are recommended serving sizes for foods that are high in carbohydrates:

  • Starchy vegetables: 1 cup (230 grams) mashed potato or sweet potato, 1 small ear of corn
  • Fruits: 1 medium-size fruit (such as 1 medium apple or 1 medium orange), 1/2 cup (120 grams) of frozen or chopped fruit, or 3/4 cup (185 milliliters) of fruit juice
  • Breads and cereals: 1 slice of whole-grain bread; 1 ounce (30 grams) or 2/3 cup (60 grams) of whole-grain cereal; 1/2 cup (100 grams) of cooked brown rice, pasta, or cereal; 1/2 cup (85 grams) of cooked dried beans, lentils, or dried peas
  • Dairy: 1 cup (240 milliliters) of skim or low-fat milk or 8 ounces (225 grams) plain yogurt

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:

BREAKFAST

  • 1 cup (60 grams) shredded wheat cereal, topped with 1 tbsp (10 g) raisins and one cup (240 milliliters) fat-free milk
  • 1 small banana
  • 1 hard-boiled egg

LUNCH

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

  • 1 teaspoon (tsp) or 5 milliliters (mL) mayonnaise-type salad dressing
  • 1 tsp (2 g) yellow mustard
  • 1 medium pear
  • 1 cup (240 milliliters) tomato juice

DINNER

  • 5 ounces (140 grams) grilled top loin steak
  • 3/4 cup (190 grams) mashed sweet potato
  • 2 tsp (10 g) soft margarine
  • 1 cup (30 grams) spinach salad
  • 2 ounce (55 grams) whole-wheat dinner roll
  • 1 tsp (5 g) soft margarine
  • 1 cup (240 milliliters) fat-free milk
  • 1 cup (240 milliliters) unsweetened applesauce

SNACK

  • 1 cup (225 grams) low-fat plain yogurt with strawberries on top

 

 

References

Abumrad NA, Nassi F, Marcus A. Digestion and absorption of dietary fat, carbohydrate, and protein. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 102.

Baynes JW. Carbohydrates and lipids. In: Baynes JW, Dominiczak MH, eds. Medical Biochemistry. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 3.

Sacks DB. Carbohydrates. In: Burtis CA, Ashwood  ER, Bruns DE, eds. Tietz Textbook of Clinical Chemistry and Molecular Diagnostics. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 26.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed February 8, 2016.

 
  • Complex carbohydrates

    Complex carbohydrates - illustration

    Complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Both simple and complex carbohydrates are turned to glucose (blood sugar) in the body and are used as energy. Glucose is used in the cells of the body and in the brain. Any unused glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen for use later. Complex carbohydrate foods provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are important to the health of an individual. The majority of carbohydrates should come from complex carbohydrates (starches) and naturally occurring sugars, rather than processed or refined sugars, which do not have the vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in complex and natural carbohydrates. Refined sugars are often called "empty calories" because they have little to no nutritional value.

    Complex carbohydrates

    illustration

  • Simple carbohydrates

    Simple carbohydrates - illustration

    Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly by the body to be used as energy. Simple carbohydrates are found naturally in foods such as fruits, milk, and milk products. They are also found in processed and refined sugars such as candy, table sugar, syrups, and soft drinks. The majority of carbohydrate intake should come from complex carbohydrates (starches) and naturally occurring sugars rather than processed or refined sugars.

    Simple carbohydrates

    illustration

  • Starchy foods

    Starchy foods - illustration

    All food that you eat turns to sugar in your body. Carbohydrate-containing foods alter your sugar levels more than any other type of food. Carbohydrates are found in starchy or sugary foods, such as bread, rice, pasta, cereal, potatoes, peas, corn, fruit, fruit juice, milk, yogurt, cookies, candy, soda, and other sweets. Other possible sources include peas, milk, and yogurt. more

    Starchy foods

    illustration

    • Complex carbohydrates

      Complex carbohydrates - illustration

      Complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. Both simple and complex carbohydrates are turned to glucose (blood sugar) in the body and are used as energy. Glucose is used in the cells of the body and in the brain. Any unused glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen for use later. Complex carbohydrate foods provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are important to the health of an individual. The majority of carbohydrates should come from complex carbohydrates (starches) and naturally occurring sugars, rather than processed or refined sugars, which do not have the vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in complex and natural carbohydrates. Refined sugars are often called "empty calories" because they have little to no nutritional value.

      Complex carbohydrates

      illustration

    • Simple carbohydrates

      Simple carbohydrates - illustration

      Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly by the body to be used as energy. Simple carbohydrates are found naturally in foods such as fruits, milk, and milk products. They are also found in processed and refined sugars such as candy, table sugar, syrups, and soft drinks. The majority of carbohydrate intake should come from complex carbohydrates (starches) and naturally occurring sugars rather than processed or refined sugars.

      Simple carbohydrates

      illustration

    • Starchy foods

      Starchy foods - illustration

      All food that you eat turns to sugar in your body. Carbohydrate-containing foods alter your sugar levels more than any other type of food. Carbohydrates are found in starchy or sugary foods, such as bread, rice, pasta, cereal, potatoes, peas, corn, fruit, fruit juice, milk, yogurt, cookies, candy, soda, and other sweets. Other possible sources include peas, milk, and yogurt. more

      Starchy foods

      illustration

    A Closer Look

     

      Self Care

       

      Tests for Carbohydrates

       

         

        Review Date: 2/9/2016

        Reviewed By: Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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