Carbohydrates in Your Diet

Some carbs should be avoided while others can be replaced

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Carbohydrates are a component of food that supplies energy through calories to the body. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that your body uses to survive. Most foods and beverages contain some of each of these macronutrients in different proportions.

Examples of foods which contain mostly carbohydrates include grains, fruits, cereals, pasta, bread, and pastries.

There are different types of carbohydrates, some are found naturally in food, and there are low- and high-quality carbohydrates.

Low-carb diets have become popular and have given carbs a bit of a bad reputation. However, it's important to understand that not all carbs are bad, you simply need to learn how to properly integrate them into a healthy diet.

Types of Carbohydrates

There are three basic types of carbohydrates found in food, with a fourth category that is helpful as well.

  1. Sugars: 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 as disaccharides. Examples of these include sucrose (table sugar), which is made up of molecules of glucose and fructose, and lactose (milk sugar), which is glucose and galactose joined together. 
  1. Starches: Starches (polysaccharides) are "complex carbohydrates." They are 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.
  1. Fiber: Fiber is a carbohydrate found in the cellulose of plant-based foods such as grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, and legumes. It cannot be broken down for energy use in the body and includes both soluble and insoluble fibers.
  2. Oligosaccharides: This fourth category of carbohydrates falls between sugars and starches. Oligosaccharides are a fermentable combination of simple sugars that have positive effects in our colons and are considered prebiotics.

High- and Low-Quality Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates occur naturally in many plants and these foods also provide a variety of nutrients that contribute to your overall health. These are considered high-quality carbs and include those from fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Low-quality carbs, on the other hand, are often found in processed foods. These often include added sugar, fat, sodium, and preservatives to improve taste or shelf life. Though they may be artificially fortified with vitamins and minerals, these foods often lack the nutrients available in whole foods. Foods like white bread, sweetened beverages and cereals, baked goods, and processed potato products fall into this category. 

According to Harvard Medical School, it is the quality of the carbohydrates you ingest that contributes to a healthy diet, not just the reduction of carbs.

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 spikes and satiating the appetite.

To improve the quality of carbs in your diet, you can 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.

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, so the more calories you need.

In general, the USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that men between 26 and 45 with a moderate activity level eat 2,600 calories each day. Women in the same age and activity group should eat 2,000 calories.

It's further recommended that 45 to 65 percent 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.

Other Sources of Energy

The primary use of carbohydrates in the body is energy, but carbohydrates are not the only dietary source of energy. Fats can not only provide energy, they are the main way the body stores energy. According to the Institute of Medicine's Dietary Reference Intakes guide, you can live without eating any carbs as long as you eat adequate amounts of protein and fat:

"The lower limit of dietary carbohydrate compatible with life apparently is zero, provided that adequate amounts of protein and fat are consumed."

Your body can make the amount of glucose needed to survive (the Institute of Medicine estimated this to be about 22 to 28 grams per day) in a process called gluconeogenesis. It is a synthesizing of glucose, primarily from proteins.

Low-Carb Diets

Many low-carb diets recommend removing processed sources of carbohydrates. Some diets, like the Atkins diet and South Beach diet, offer specially formulated protein bars that are low-carb. While other low-carb diets, like the Paleo diet and ketogenic diet, recommend eliminating processed carbs like bread and dairy and also limiting fruit.

If you are counting carbs, make sure to read the nutritional labels of the foods you are eating. The carb counts of processed foods can vary from brand to brand, especially when it comes to sweetened versus unsweetened versions of foods. 

Before you eliminate all carbohydrates from your diet, it is important to remember that foods containing carbohydrates also contain other important nutrients. If you respond well to lower-carb diets or are following them for weight loss or other health reasons, you can swap carb-rich foods for vegetables and fruits that are high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients.

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 by people today. A few simple changes can go a long way, lead to weight loss, and improve your overall health.

Sources:

Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Food and Nutrition Board. Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids. The National Academies Press. 2005.

Harvard Men's Health Watch. Carbohydrates in Your Diet: It's the Quality That Counts. Harvard Health Publishing. 2014.

United States Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. United States Department of Health and Human Services. 2015.