Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that occur naturally in plant foods, including peas and beans, nuts and seeds, grains, dairy and dairy products, fruits, and vegetables.
The other two macronutrients are dietary fats and proteins.
Carbohydrates are an
The word “carbohydrate” is an umbrella term that describes various types of sugar-containing molecules present in foods.
Types of carbohydrates
Generally, there are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and dietary fiber.
It is possible to classify them further as simple or complex carbs, depending on the number and type of sugar molecules — such as glucose — that each structure contains.
Also called “simple sugars,” “sugars,” or “saccharides,” these carbohydrates contain between one and 10 sugar molecules and are present in fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Those with one or two sugar molecules are called monosaccharides and disaccharides, respectively, while those containing up to 10 sugar molecules are called oligosaccharides.
Lactose — the main sugar in animal milk — is a disaccharide comprising the monosaccharides glucose and galactose.
Oligosaccharides, however, are mid-length
Complex carbohydrates are made up of
Starches are the storage carbohydrates in peas and beans, grains, and vegetables, and they provide the body with energy.
Are there ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ carbs?
Carbohydrates often get a bad rap due to the
This phenomenon, which some researchers call “
For this reason, many
However, several other
This finding suggests that rather than all carbs being “created equal,” some options are better than others for health.
Carbohydrates that people may consider unhealthy because they are less nutritious include:
- refined carbohydrates, such as polished rice and flour
- sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas and juices
- highly processed snacks, including cookies and pastries
According to existing research, a diet with a higher intake of these types of carbohydrates and fewer of the more nutritious options can increase markers of
The excessive consumption of simple
However, studies distinguish that added sugars and simple sugars that occur naturally in foods may not have the same negative effects.
Emerging research continues to shine a light on the adverse health effects of these so-called unhealthy carbohydrate foods.
Experts recommend eating a balanced diet that consists primarily of nutritious foods and includes these types of carbohydrates only in moderation.
More nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates that people typically see as healthy include:
- fruits, such as bananas, apples, and berries
- nonstarchy vegetables, such as spinach, carrots, and tomatoes
- whole grains, such as whole grain flour, brown rice, and quinoa
- peas and beans, such as black beans, lentil peas, or garbanzo beans
- dairy and dairy products, such as low fat milk, yogurt, and cheese
Research has linked diets rich in these complex carbohydrates — such as the
The researchers attribute many of these benefits to the dietary fiber content of complex carbohydrates.
For instance, the dietary fiber in whole fruits
Furthermore, boosting the quality of the diet by including more complex carbs and dietary fiber
Deciding which carbs are the ‘healthiest’
The GI is a measure of the blood sugar-raising potential of a single carbohydrate food compared with pure glucose.
Low GI foods, which primarily consist of complex carbs, have minimal effects on blood sugar levels. They include whole grains and nonstarchy vegetables. High GI foods include potatoes and foods with added sugars.
Likewise, people use the GL to assess how much a particular meal is likely to increase blood sugar levels.
Although people have used both the GI and GL for decades to guide meal planning and manage blood sugar levels for people with diabetes, the science is
Many studies suggest that an
A food’s GI may, therefore, not be a direct predictor of an individual’s glycemic response.
Differences in glycemic response between individuals make it challenging to determine which carbs are truly the healthiest, since even whole grains
Are diets rich in carbs good for you?
Despite the popularity of
For example, endurance athletic performance
Among members of the general population with high carbohydrate intake,
Therefore, for populations that consume 65–75% of their daily calories from carbohydrates,
A carbohydrate restriction of 45% or less of daily calories is
Before making changes to their diet, people should speak with a doctor or registered dietitian to determine their specific carbohydrate needs to optimize their health outcomes.
The bottom line
Carbohydrates are an essential macronutrient, providing the body with energy and dietary fiber to support good health.
Excessive consumption of carbohydrates is associated with weight gain and an increased risk of the development of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes.
Despite their bad rap, however, carbohydrates offer many health benefits when a person frequently consumes sources of complex carbs and dietary fiber in favor of refined carbs and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Also, the ideal diet varies among individuals. For example, a carbohydrate-rich diet optimizes athletic performance.
However, nonathletic populations that consume 65–75% of their daily calories from carbohydrates see the greatest reduction in blood sugar levels when they reduce their calorie intake from carbohydrates to 50–55% of their daily energy intake.
Carbohydrates are not bad when people manage the amount and types that they consume and tailor these to their specific needs.
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