Carbohydrates 101

There is so much talk about carbohydrates, whole grain, fiber, low carbohydrate diets, etc out there these days, but what exactly are carbohydrates? What is the benefit to eating them? And, what are some types of carbohydrates? Is bread another word for carbohydrates? Today, we are answering these questions for you!


What are carbohydrates exactly?

Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient – basically what provides your body with energy to function. In addition to carbohydrates, the other macronutrients are fat and protein. Vitamins and minerals are nutrients, but they do not provide calories (or are an energy source). Calories are how we measure any kind of energy.

There are two different types of carbohydrates – simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are absorbed quickly for energy and are made of one or two sugar molecules. Some sources of simple carbohydrates include table sugar, honey, maple syrup, etc. Complex carbohydrates are a long chain of simple carbohydrates linked together and typically include fiber. They require digestion to change from complex carbohydrates to simple carbohydrates to be used for energy. They typically contain other nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and fiber, and are found in products such as whole grains, beans, and vegetables. Fiber is the part of the plant food that our body does not absorb – resulting in bulk to the diet and a slower digestion process. This, in turn, makes us feel fuller for longer!   It is important to note that there is a chance that complex carbohydrates may be refined during processing, which can remove many of the nutritional benefits from the carbohydrate. For instance, a piece of whole wheat (whole grain) bread can be processed to remove the bran and germ which removes many of the vitamins and much of the fiber content. This result is white bread.

These days, most simple carbohydrates in a typical American’s diet come from processed sugars (like table sugar, sodas, cookies, juice, etc), and these are the ones that, as dietitians, we recommend to avoid. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates to get the majority of your nutrition plus an added bonus of vitamins and minerals!

What are some examples of carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are found in a wide range of products, not just bread or pasta. In fact, other sources of carbohydrates include: fruit and fruit juices, sweets (candy, cookies, soda), milk and dairy products, rice, vegetables, legumes/ beans, seeds.

What is a typical serving of carbohydrate?

We consider a serving to be about 15 grams carbohydrate. So, for items that have a label, take a look at the total carbohydrate amount to determine the serving equivalent for the product you are eating. Make sure you are taking into account the portion size! For items that do not have a label, common portion size is the best way to determine what a typical serving is. For instance, a piece of round fruit should be about the size of your fist and a serving of banana is actually 1/2 banana. For bread, a standard serving size is 1 piece of bread.

How many carbohydrates a day should I be eating?

The minimum amount of carbohydrates per day needed for basic body and brain functioning is 130 grams (or between 8-9 servings). If the body does not have enough glucose (the broken down part of carbohydrates), the next step for the body is to break down stored protein in the muscle for energy in order to supply glucose to the brain. Ideally, it is recommended for most Americans to have about 45-65% of their daily intake come from carbohydrates (meaning ~200-300 grams in ~2000 calorie diet or anywhere from ~13- 20 servings of carbohydrate). For personalized carbohydrate recommendations, feel free to contact us. We would be happy to help!

Talk to us! Is this information new to you? What questions do you have about carbohydrates?

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