Carbohydrates are a nutrient found in many foods that is converted into sugars during the digestive process. You might have heard that carbohydrates, or carbs, are bad for you, but this is not necessarily true. In fact, your body needs carbohydrates to function well and to provide energy. Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and beverages. Most carbohydrates are naturally occurring in plant-based foods, such as grains. Food manufacturers also add carbohydrates to processed foods in the form of starch or added sugar. The most basic carbohydrate is a sugar molecule, which joins together one or two units of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
Carbs are divided into main three groups: simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates and fiber. The three different types of carbohydrates vary in nutritional value and are broken down in different ways during digestion. Learning about the three kinds of carbohydrates can help you make smart food choices in order to stay healthy every day. Common sources of naturally occurring carbohydrates include: fruits, vegetables, milk, grains, legumes and other starchy vegetables.
1. Simple Carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates are sometimes called simple sugars, mainly because they contain either natural or added sugar. Simple carbohydrates as foods that satisfy your sweet tooth, because they taste sweet and usually contain such sweeteners as honey, sugar, molasses or corn syrup. Dairy products and some fruits and vegetables are also classified as simple carbohydrates because they contain natural sugars. Sugars include fruit sugar (fructose), table sugar (sucrose) and milk sugar (lactose).
2. Complex Carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates, called starches, are carbs that are made from several linked strings or chains of sugars. Complex carbs are often healthier than simple carbs because in addition to being starchy, they also provide you with some of your dietary fiber. Examples of complex carbs are corn, bread, cereal, pasta and rice. Like simple carbohydrates, complex carbs can cause a spike in your blood glucose levels that, in some people, can lead to insulin resistance. Starch occurs naturally in vegetables, grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.
Fiber is the third type of carbohydrate. Although it is categorized as a complex carbohydrate, fiber does not act like the other two forms of carbs. Your body can’t completely digest fiber, so it can’t be broken down into sugars. Fiber can help regulate blood glucose levels, as well as lower cholesterol levels and promote regular digestion and excretion of waste. Whole grains and many fruits and vegetables, including dark leafy greens and orange-colored fruits and vegetables, are rich in fiber. Whole grains are not processed as fully as the flours used to make foods that fall into the simple carbohydrates; the refinement process of white flours removes fiber. Lentils, peas and dried beans are also fiber-rich foods that can contribute to a healthy digestive system.
Carbohydrates and Your Health
Your body uses carbohydrates as its main fuel source. They are absorbed into your bloodstream, where they’re known as blood sugar (glucose). From there, the glucose enters your body’s cells with the help of insulin. Some of this glucose is used by your body for energy, fueling all of your activities, whether it’s going for a walk or daily living. Extra glucose is stored in your liver, muscles and other cells for later use or is converted to fat.
Protecting against disease
Some research shows that whole grains and dietary fiber from whole foods helps reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases. Fiber may also protect against obesity and type 2 diabetes. Fiber is also essential for digestive health.
Evidence shows that eating plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains can help you control your weight. Their bulk and fiber content aids weight control by helping you feel full on fewer calories.
Tips: Choose the right carbs
- Eat fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Aim for whole fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables without added sugar. They’re better options than are fruit juices and dried fruits, which are concentrated sources of natural sugar and therefore have more calories.
- Choose whole grains. All types of grains are good sources of carbohydrates. They’re also rich in vitamins and minerals and naturally low in fat. But whole grains are healthier choices than are refined grains. Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium and magnesium. Refined grains go through a process that strips out certain parts of the grain — along with some of the nutrients and fiber.
- Stick to low-fat dairy products. Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are good sources of calcium and protein, plus many other vitamins and minerals. Choose the low-fat versions, though, to help limit calories and saturated fat.
- Limit added sugars. There is no health advantage to consuming any amount of added sugar. In fact, too much added sugar, and in some cases naturally occurring sugar, can lead to such health problems as tooth decay, poor nutrition and weight gain.