Nutrition 101: Carbohydrates

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What are Carbohydrates and Do We Need to Eat Them?

Carbohydrates are organic compounds found in our food in the form of starch and sugar. In their simplest form, carbohydrates break down to glucose. Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our bodies, and glucose is the essential nutrient of fuel for our brains.  We need to eat carbohydrates on a daily basis to support our brain and body’s functions.

Where do Carbohydrates Come From?

Carbohydrates are derived from grains, in addition to fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, and dairy products. Carbohydrates come in two forms: simple and complex. The body easily breaks down simple carbohydrates because they are made up of only one or two sugar molecules. Complex carbohydrates are sugar molecules that are connected in long chains and therefore take longer to break down.

Are All Carbohydrates Created Equal?

Carbohydrates can be nutrient-dense or contain empty calories. Whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, beans, lentils, and dairy products contain nutrient-dense carbohydrates in both simple and complex forms. In addition to carbohydrates, these whole foods contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Processed foods that contain added sugars, such as cookies, candy, sweetened yogurt, juices, and soft drinks also contain carbohydrates, but in a refined form. Refined carbohydrates contain empty calories because they are devoid of other essential nutrients.

How Many Carbohydrates Should People Consume?

Since carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, people should consume 50-55% of their daily caloric intake from carbohydrates. For the average person, that equals to 1000 Calories or 250 grams. A piece of fruit or a slice of bread contains 15 grams of carbohydrates, while a serving of vegetables typically contains 5 grams of carbohydrates. Processed foods contain a high concentration of refined carbohydrates per serving, so read package labels to determine the number of grams in those products.

The Bottom Line for Carbohydrates:

Carbohydrates are essential to our well-being, to our brain function, and to the function of many cells within our body. Carbohydrates can be quickly digested in their simple form, and more slowly digested (due to the fiber) in their complex forms. Choosing carbohydrates from whole grains, whole fruits and vegetables, and minimally processed dairy products most often will provide us with the most nutrient-dense sources to support a healthy body.  Although carbohydrates may be vilified by trendy diets, they should be consumed on a daily basis for optimal brain and body health.

By Beth Rosen, MS, RD, CDN

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