Carbohydrates aren't bad, but some may be healthier than others. See why carbs are important for your health and which ones to choose.
Carbohydrates often get a bad rap, especially when it comes to weight gain. But carbohydrates aren't all bad. Because of their numerous health benefits, carbohydrates have a rightful place in your diet. In fact, your body needs carbohydrates to function well.
But some carbohydrates might be better for you than others. Understand more about carbohydrates and how to choose healthy carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and beverages. Most carbohydrates occur naturally in plant-based foods, such as grains. Food manufacturers also add carbohydrates to processed foods in the form of starch or added sugar.
Common sources of naturally occurring carbohydrates include:
There are three main types of carbohydrates:
Terms such as "low carb" or "net carbs" often appear on product labels. But the Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate these terms, so there's no standard meaning. Typically "net carbs" is used to mean the amount of carbohydrates in a product excluding fiber, or excluding both fiber and sugar alcohols.
You probably have also heard talk about the glycemic index. The glycemic index classifies carbohydrate-containing foods according to their potential to raise your blood sugar level.
Weight-loss diets based on the glycemic index typically recommend limiting foods that are higher on the glycemic index. Foods with a relatively high glycemic index ranking include potatoes and white bread, and less healthy options such as snack foods and desserts that contain refined flours.
Many healthy foods, such as whole grains, legumes, vegetables, fruits and low-fat dairy products, are naturally lower on the glycemic index.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories.
So, if you get 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates a day.
You can find the carbohydrate content of packaged foods on the Nutrition Facts label. The label shows total carbohydrates — which includes starches, fiber, sugar alcohols, and naturally occurring and added sugars. The label might also list separately total fiber, soluble fiber and sugar.
Despite their bad rap, carbohydrates are vital to your health for a number of reasons.
Carbohydrates are your body's main fuel source. During digestion, sugars and starches are broken down into simple sugars. They're then absorbed into your bloodstream, where they're known as blood sugar (blood glucose).
From there, glucose enters your body's cells with the help of insulin. Glucose is used by your body for energy, and fuels all of your activities — whether it's going for a jog or simply breathing. Extra glucose is stored in your liver, muscles and other cells for later use, or is converted to fat.
Some evidence suggests that whole grains and dietary fiber from whole foods help reduce your risk of cardiovascular diseases. Fiber may also protect against obesity and type 2 diabetes. Fiber is also essential for optimal digestive health.
Evidence shows that eating plenty of fruit, vegetables 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. Contrary to what low-carb diets claim, very few studies show that a diet rich in healthy carbohydrates leads to weight gain or obesity.
Carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet, and provide many important nutrients. Still, not all carbs are created equal.
Here's how to make healthy carbohydrates work in a balanced diet:
So choose your carbohydrates wisely. Limit foods with added sugars and refined grains, such as sugary drinks, desserts and candy, which are packed with calories but low in nutrition. Instead, go for fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
© 1998-2019 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved.