Carbohydrates are one of the main nutrients in our diet. They help provide energy for our body. There are three main types of carbohydrates found in foods: sugars, starches, and fiber.
People with diabetes often need to count the amount of carbohydrates they eat.
Your body needs all three forms of carbohydrates to function properly.
Sugars and starches are broken down by the body into glucose (blood sugar) to be used as energy.
Fiber is the part of food that is not broken down by the body. Fiber helps you to feel full and can help you stay at a healthy weight.
Many different types of foods contain one or more type of carbohydrate.
Sugar occurs naturally in these nutrient-rich foods:
- Milk and milk products
Some foods have added sugar. Many packaged and refined foods contain added sugar. These include:
- Cookies, cakes, and pastries
- Regular (non-diet) carbonated beverages, such as soda
- Heavy syrups, such as those added to canned fruit
Refined foods with added sugar provide calories, but they lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Because they lack nutrients, these foods provide "empty calories" and can lead to weight gain. It's best to eat foods without added sugar.
These nutrient-rich foods are high in starch. Many are also high in fiber:
- Canned and dried beans, such as kidney beans, black beans, pinto beans, black-eyed peas, split peas, and garbanzo beans
- Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, green peas, and parsnips
- Whole grains, such as brown rice, oats, barley, and quinoa
Refined grains, such as those found in pastries, white bread, crackers, and white rice also contain starch. However, they lack B vitamins and other important nutrients unless they are marked "enriched." Foods made with refined or "white" flour also contain less fiber and protein than whole-grain products, and do not help you feel as satisfied.
High-fiber foods include:
- Whole grains, such as whole wheat and brown rice as well as whole-grain breads, cereals, and crackers
- Beans and legumes, such as black beans, kidney beans, and garbanzo beans
- Vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, corn, potato with skin
- Fruits, such as raspberries, pears, apples, and figs
- Nuts and seeds
Most processed and refined foods, enriched or not, are low in fiber.
Eating too many carbohydrates in the form of processed, starchy, or sugary foods can cause an increase in total calories. This can lead to weight gain.
Severely restricting carbohydrates can cause ketosis. This is when the body uses fat for energy because there are not enough carbohydrates from food for the body to use for energy.
It is best to get most of your carbohydrates from whole foods. In addition to calories, whole foods provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
By making smart food choices, you can get the full range of healthy carbohydrates and plenty of nutrients:
- Choose a variety of unprocessed foods. These include whole grains, fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, canned or fresh beans and legumes, and low-fat or non-fat dairy products.
- Read labels on canned, packaged, and frozen foods to avoid added sugar, salt, and fat.
- Make half of your grain servings per day from whole grains.
- If you eat refined grains, make sure they are enriched.
- Choose whole fruits and 100% fruit juices with little to no added sugar. Make at least half of your daily fruit servings from whole fruits.
- Limit sweets, sugar-sweetened beverages, and alcohol. Limit added sugars to less than 10 percent of calories per day.
Here are recommended serving sizes for foods that are high in carbohydrates:
- Starchy vegetables: 1 cup mashed potato or sweet potato, 1 small ear of corn
- Fruits: 1 medium-size fruit (such as 1 medium apple or 1 medium orange), 1/2 cup of frozen or chopped fruit, or 3/4 cup of fruit juice
- Breads and cereals: 1 slice of whole-grain bread; 1 ounce or 2/3 cup of whole-grain cereal; 1/2 cup of cooked brown rice, pasta, or cereal; 1/2 cup of cooked dried beans, lentils, or dried peas
- Dairy: 1 cup of skim or low-fat milk or 8 ounces plain yogurt
The food guide plate recommends filling half of your plate with fruits and vegetables, and one-third of your plate with grains, at least half of which are whole grains.
Here is a sample 2,000-calorie menu with healthy carbohydrate choices:
- 1 cup shredded wheat cereal, topped with 1 tbsp. raisins and one cup fat-free milk
- 1 small banana
- 1 hard-boiled egg
Smoked turkey sandwich, made with 2 ounces whole-wheat pita bread, 1/4 cup romaine lettuce, 2 slices tomato, 3 ounces sliced smoked turkey breast
- 1 teaspoon (tsp.) mayonnaise-type salad dressing
- 1 tsp. yellow mustard
- 1 medium pear
- 1 cup tomato juice
- 5 ounces grilled top loin steak
- 3/4 cup mashed sweet potato
- 2 tsp. soft margarine
- 1 cup spinach salad
- 2 ounce whole-wheat dinner roll
- 1 tsp. soft margarine
- 1 cup fat-free milk
- 1 cup unsweetened applesauce
- 1 cup low-fat plain yogurt with strawberries on top
Starches; Simple sugars; Sugars; Complex carbohydrates; Diet - carbohydrates; Simple carbohydrates
Abumrad NA, Nassi F, Marcus A. Digestion and absorption of dietary fat, carbohydrate, and protein. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran's Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2016:chap 102.
Baynes JW. Carbohydrates and lipids. In: Baynes JW, Dominiczak MH, eds. Medical Biochemistry. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 3.
Sacks DB. Carbohydrates. In: Burtis CA, Ashwood ER, Bruns DE, eds. Tietz Textbook of Clinical Chemistry and Molecular Diagnostics. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2012:chap 26.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed February 8, 2016.
Update Date 2/9/2016
Updated by: Emily Wax, RD, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, Brooklyn, NY. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.