Types of Carbohydrate in Your Diet

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Carbohydrates are a component of food that supplies energy to the body. The energy value of digestible carbohydrates is four calories per gram. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that your body needs. 

There are different types of carbohydrates—some are found naturally in food and others are manufactured to be included in processed foods. Examples of carbohydrate foods include grains, fruits, cereals, pasta, bread, and pastries. Learn about the different types of carbs to make healthier food decisions.

Types of Carbohydrate

Carbohydrates are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and they are classified in different ways. The most exact way is by chemical structure: Sugars classified as monosaccharides and disaccharides and more complex carbohydrates as polysaccharides or oligosaccharides. There are three basic types of carbohydrates found in food, with a fourth category as well.


Also called "simple carbohydrates," these are molecules of simple sugars such as glucose, fructose (fruit sugar), and galactose, which are known as monosaccharides.

When two of these molecules join together, they are called disaccharides. An example of a disaccharide is sucrose—or table sugar—which is made up of molecules of glucose and fructose. Lactose (milk sugar) is another example. Lactose is glucose and galactose joined together.


Starches are polysaccharides or "complex carbohydrates," composed of long chains of glucose. Your body breaks down starches—some more rapidly than others—into glucose to produce energy. A special starch, called resistant starch, may be especially valuable for weight loss and colon health.


Fiber is a carbohydrate found in the cellulose of plant-based foods such as grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. Dietary fiber can be soluble or insoluble and passes through the body without being fully digested. This means that fewer calories are absorbed by the body, although research is ongoing about exactly how many calories different types of fiber contribute.

The body doesn't use fiber for energy so the grams of fiber are often listed separately under the carbohydrate category on nutrition labels. While dietary fiber doesn't provide energy, it has a beneficial role in digestion and metabolism.


This fourth category of carbohydrates falls between sugars and starches. Oligosaccharides are a fermentable combination of simple sugars that have positive effects in our colon and are considered prebiotics. Fructans and galactans are the two types of oligosaccharides. Fructans are present in wheat, garlic, onions, and artichokes while galactans are found in broccoli, beans and legumes, soy products, and brussels sprouts.

Daily Recommendations

Your age, sex, height, and weight factor into the daily recommendation for the number of calories and carbs you should eat every day. Your physical activity level will also play a big role: The more active you are, the more energy you burn and the more calories you need.

In general, the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that males consume between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day. Males who are younger and more active need more calories. Females generally need 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day. Older individuals and those who are less active need fewer calories.

It is further recommended that 45% to 65% of those calories come from carbohydrate. For a 2,000 calorie diet, that would be about 900 to 1300 calories from carbs or 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrate.

High- and Low-Quality Carbs

Sometimes people refer to "good" carbs and "bad" carbs. Often, complex carbohydrates are considered "good," and simple and refined carbs are considered "bad."

While there are some carbohydrates that provide greater nutritional value, it's often not helpful to refer to any food as "good" or "bad."

Instead, it's much more beneficial to understand the characteristics of complex, simple, and refined carbs to understand how each might fit into your eating program.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbs contain at least three sugars. Oligosaccharides contain between three and 10 simple sugar units. Polysaccharides can contain hundreds of saccharides. Complex carbohydrates such as legumes, whole grains, starchy vegetables, pasta, and bread provide the body with relatively sustained energy.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbs are made up of only one (monosaccharide) or two (disaccharide) sugar units. Simple sugars include fructose, sucrose, glucose, maltose, and lactose. Simple carbs include the carbs found in fruit, table sugar, candy, honey, and syrups; they provide quick energy. Fruit is considered to be a healthy carbohydrate.

Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbs generally refer to the carbs are found in processed foods and beverages. These foods often include added sugar, fat, sodium, and preservatives to improve taste or shelf life.

Refined carbohydrates such as white bread and rice cereal are often fortified with folate and B vitamins to replace the nutrients they've lost when refining the grain. But, they lack fiber, which is found in whole grains. Foods such as 100% whole grain bread and cereal will contain more fiber, protein, a small amount of healthy fat, and other micronutrients.

Choosing the Best Carbs

According to Harvard Medical School, it is the quality of the carbohydrates you ingest that contributes to a healthy diet. For instance, low-quality carbs are quickly digested, often leading to blood sugar spikes and only a temporary feeling of fullness. The fiber and nutrients found in whole foods can offset the glucose conversion of starches and sugars, preventing drastic energy spikes and satiating the appetite.

In the Dietary Guidelines 2020–2025, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends shifting to eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy to increase consumption of calcium and dietary fiber. The guidelines also recommend shifting away from added sugars in drinks, snacks, and sweets. Try to limit your sugar intake to less than 10% of daily calories. Some expert sources, such as the American Heart Association, recommend an even lower limit of 6%.

To improve the quality of carbs in your diet, choose more whole grains and limit foods that have added sugars. Cooking food from scratch at home and eating primarily whole foods, rather than processed ones, can help significantly.

Myths About Carbs

The popularity of some fad diets and other sources of misinformation have led to the promotion of certain myths about carbs.

Carbs Cause Weight Gain

Many people choose to go on a low-carb diet to lose weight. While some low-carb diets are effective for some people, it doesn't mean that carbs cause weight gain. Excess calorie consumption causes weight gain. Consuming certain types of carbohydrates can indirectly contribute to the overconsumption of calories.

For example, if you eat a breakfast full of heavily processed sugary foods, you may get hungry shortly after eating and eat again. Whereas, choosing a balanced breakfast that includes fiber and protein helps you to stay full and satisfied so that you don't eat again until lunchtime.

Low-Carb Diets Are Most Effective

Many people choose to go on a low-carb diet to lose weight or to manage a medical condition such as type 2 diabetes. For them, a low-carb eating style is the best way to achieve health and wellness goals.

But studies have shown that the most effective weight loss diet for you is the diet you can stick to for the long term. In short, there is no "best" diet. And even when you are managing a medical condition, you need to find a program that you will adhere to.

Some people benefit from following a low-carbohydrate eating plan because they begin to eat more vegetables and limit lower-quality foods such as candy and sugary beverages. There is no universal definition of low carb, and "low carb" doesn't mean "no carb." It is advised to meet with a registered dietitian to help you curate a meal plan that meets your dietary goals while ensuring you are receiving the right amounts of nutrients.

Carbs Are the Body's Only Source of Fuel

The body primarily uses carbohydrates for energy, but they aren't the body's only energy source. For example, fats not only provide energy, but they are also the main way the body stores it.

A Word From Verywell

With some attention to the foods you eat, it is possible to have a healthy diet with fewer carbohydrates than the sugary and starchy diet often consumed today. A few simple changes can go a long way, lead to weight loss, and improve your overall health.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. What is The Low FODMAP Diet?.

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  5. Harvard Men's Health Watch. Carbohydrates in Your Diet: It's the Quality That Counts. Harvard Health Publishing.

  6. American Heart Association. Federal dietary guidelines emphasize healthy eating habits but fall short on added sugars.

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By Laura Dolson
Laura Dolson is a health and food writer who develops low-carb and gluten-free recipes for home cooks.