Everything You Need to Know About Carbohydrates

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Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman

Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for the body and include both simple sugars and larger complex carbohydrates. Your body can use carbohydrates right away or convert them into a storage form called glycogen. Excess carbohydrates can also be converted into fat.

Carbohydrate Chemistry

No matter how big they are, all carbohydrates are made of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen with the general formula of Cx(H2O)y. For example, a simple sugar molecule like glucose is made up of six carbon atoms, 12 hydrogen atoms, and six oxygen atoms. It has the formula C6H12O6. A large starch molecule can be made of many little sugar molecules connected to form a long chain. The small x and y in the general formula, Cx(H2O)y, can run into the hundreds.

Simple Sugars

Simple sugars are made up of one or two sugar units. Glucose is a common simple sugar that our bodies and brains use for energy every day. Glucose is called a monosaccharide, which means "single sugar." Other monosaccharides include fructose, galactose, and ribose.

Fructose is found in fruits and vegetables; galactose is found in milk; and ribose is best known as a part of ribonucleic acid, which is a part of the genetic material in our cells.

Rather than go deeper into the chemistry of simple sugars, it is important to know that the single sugars glucose, fructose, and galactose can form different combinations to become disaccharides, a term that means "two sugars." These sugars include:

  • Lactose (milk sugar) is made up of glucose and galactose molecules. People who are "lactose intolerant" can't digest this sugar properly.
  • Maltose (malt sugar) is produced during the malting of cereals such as barley.
  • Sucrose (table sugar) is composed of glucose and fructose molecules. That's the white powdery or granular substance we typically refer to as "sugar" when we are cooking or baking.

Simple sugars are water-soluble and easy for your body to digest into the individual glucose and fructose molecules. They're also quickly absorbed through the intestinal walls and into the bloodstream.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are long chains of single sugar units. For example, the complex carbohydrate we know as starch is made up of many glucose units. These complex carbohydrates can be in the form of long chains, or the chains can form branches. Complex carbohydrates include:

  • Cellulose, the structural component of plants. Cellulose helps plants keep their shape; so, in a way, cellulose acts as a plant skeleton. We are unable to digest cellulose; however, cellulose is one of the principal components of dietary fiber, along with lignin, chitin, pectin, beta-glucan, inulin, and oligosaccharides.
  • Glycogen, a form of glucose that the muscles and liver use for energy storage.
  • Starch, the energy storage form of carbohydrates found in plants, especially in the seeds and roots. Starch is made up of many glucose units linked together. Starchy food examples include rice, wheat, corn, carrots, and potatoes. Starches are not water-soluble and require digestive enzymes called amylases to break them apart.

Dietary starch and cellulose are the complex carbohydrates that are essential for good health. Potatoes, dry beans, grains, rice, corn, squash, and peas contain significant amounts of starch.

Vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, lettuce, and other greens are not starchy. That's because the stems and leafy parts of plants don't contain much starch, but they do provide a great deal of cellulose. Since we can't digest cellulose, that means that the green and leafy vegetables contain fewer calories than the starchy vegetables.

Carbohydrate Metabolism

The body begins the process of breaking carbohydrates down into their individual monosaccharides almost before we start to eat them. When you smell the delicious aroma of fresh-baked bread or think about that tasty chocolate that you're about to consume, your mouth begins to water.

Since table sugar is water-soluble, it starts to dissolve in your mouth. Your saliva also contains a small amount of amylase, which is an enzyme that begins to break starch down into glucose while you are chewing.

Carbohydrate digestion continues in the small intestine with the help of pancreatic amylase. Amylase breaks carbohydrates down into monosaccharides that can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Once in the blood, the monosaccharides are either used for energy, stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, or converted into fat and stored in adipose tissue.

Your body needs insulin to use and store glucose. Insulin "unlocks" cells to allow glucose to get in. People with diabetes or metabolic syndrome either can't produce enough insulin, or they are not sensitive enough to the insulin they produce and need to regulate their blood sugar with medications, insulin, or dietary changes.

Your body prefers to use glucose as the primary source of fuel for all your daily activity. Muscles need glucose to move, and organs need glucose to function. While your body can make glucose from any extra dietary protein by a process called gluconeogenesis, it's best if you consume carbohydrates.

Carb Requirements and Sources

Carbohydrates should contribute 45% to 65% of your daily calories. One gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories whether is it is sugar or starch. One slice of bread has about 12 grams of carbohydrates. One typical chocolate bar may have about 50 grams of carbohydrates. A medium potato has about 35 grams of carbohydrates.

Although all carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram, some sources provide more beneficial micronutrients per calorie, thereby making them more health-promoting. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and grains provide more nutrients than candy, sodas, and pastries.

The healthy carbohydrate sources also have significant amounts of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber, all of which are vital to good health. Candy, sodas, pastries, and other convenience foods usually are inadequate sources of nutrients, and sometimes we refer to these foods as having "empty calories." That means the foods are high in energy derived from carbohydrates but with little to no vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, or fiber.

Since about half your calories should come from carbohydrates, it's easy to calculate how many grams of carbohydrates you need per day. For example, let's say a person needs 2,000 calories per day. That means that 1,000 calories should come from carbohydrates (2,000 X 0.5). Since each gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories, then you divide 1,000 by four (1,000/4) to get 250.

That person who needs 2,000 calories each day needs about 250 grams of carbohydrates per day. Of those 250 grams, less than 10% should come from added table sugar and sweeteners. That would be about 25 grams for a 2,000 calorie per day diet. That would equal about half of a candy bar or less than one can of sugary soda.

Carb Counts for Common Foods

Once you know how many grams of carbs you need every day, you can select your foods based on their carb counts and fit them into your daily calorie and carb budget. It really is impossible to list every carbohydrate-containing food here, however, here are some approximate amounts from typical examples:

  • Apple: One medium apple has 19 grams total, of which 8 grams are starch and 3 grams are fiber
  • Apple pie: One medium slice has 40 grams total, of which 18 grams are sugar
  • Asparagus: One cup has 4 grams total, of which 2 grams are fiber
  • Blueberries: One cup has 21 grams total, of which 4 grams are fiber and 15 grams are sugar
  • Bread: One slice contains 12.5 grams total, of which 10 grams are starch and less than 1 gram is fiber
  • Broccoli: One cup has 6 grams total, of which 2.5 grams are fiber and 1.5 grams are sugar
  • Carrots: One cup has 12 grams total, of which 3.5 grams are fiber and 2 grams are starch
  • Chocolate chip cookie: One medium cookie has 16 grams total, of which 7 grams are sugar
  • Dry beans like pinto beans or navy beans: One cup has 47 grams total, of which 19 grams are fiber, 28 grams are starch
  • Grapefruit: One half medium fruit has 9 grams total, of which 1.5 grams are fiber
  • Green beans: One cup has 8 grams total, of which 4 grams are fiber
  • Lettuce: Two cups has 2 grams total, of which 1 gram is fiber
  • Low-fat milk: One 8-ounce glass has 12 grams total, of which 12 grams are lactose
  • Marinara sauce: One half cup has 14 grams total, of which less than 1 gram is fiber
  • Orange: One medium fruit has 15 grams total, of which 3 grams are fiber
  • Orange juice: One 8-ounce cup has 26 grams total, of which 21 grams are from fruit sugars
  • Pasta: One cup has 43 grams total, of which 36 grams are starch and 2.5 grams are fiber
  • Potato: One medium potato with skin has 29 grams total, of which 3 grams are fiber and 25 grams are starch
  • Raisin bran cereal: One cup has 43 grams total, of which 7 grams are fiber, 17 grams are starch, and 16 grams are sugar
  • Red wine: One 4-ounce glass has 3 grams total, of which, less than 1 gram is sugar
  • Snickers candy bar: Contains 63.5 total grams, of which 53 grams are sugar and 2 grams are fiber
  • Strawberries: One cup has 12 grams total, of which 3 grams are fiber
  • Sugar frosted corn flake cereal: One cup has 28 grams total, of which 15 grams are starch, 1 gram is fiber, 12 grams are sugar
  • Sweet corn: One cup has 31 grams total, of which 21 grams are starch and 3 grams are fiber
  • Tomato: One medium fruit has 5 grams total, of which 1.5 grams are fiber

Nutrition facts labels on packaged foods will also list the amount of carbohydrates per serving. It takes a little extra time and effort to look up the carbohydrate counts for all of the foods you eat, but with experience, you will begin to have a good idea of approximate calorie counts and carbohydrate counts.

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