Carbohydrates (carbs) are mentioned a lot, by many people. In November you hear about carbohydrates because of Thanksgiving feasts and American Diabetes Month. In January you hear about people going on low-carb diets for weight loss. In the summer people try to give up carbohydrates for swimsuit bodies. Carbohydrates are in the news and in conversation, but what are they? Do we need them? Are they bad? Do they make you gain weight? This post is an introduction to carbohydrates.
What is a carbohydrate?
Medical Dictionary Definition:
any of various neutral compounds of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen (as sugars, starches, and celluloses) most of which are formed by green plants and which constitute a major class of animal foods –Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary
Real Life Definition:
Carbohydrates are compounds that occur naturally in foods (and can also be manufactured and added to foods) in three types (starches, sugars, and fibers).
What foods have carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are found in dairy, starches, fruit, sweetened beverages, and dessert sweets. There can be added or naturally occurring carbohydrates in any of these. Foods do not have to taste sweet to have carbohydrates. Some examples include
- Dairy: milk, chocolate milk, ice cream, frozen yogurt, and regular or flavored yogurt (not cheese)
- Starches: any type of pasta, bread, rice, beans, starchy vegetables (potatoes, corn, peas, lentils, etc), crackers, cereal, etc (any starchy food)
- Fruit: apples, oranges, grapes, melon, berries, fruit juice, etc (any fruit)
- Beverages: fruit juice, lattes, chocolate milk, sweet tea, non-diet sodas, energy drinks, etc (any drink sweetened with anything other than non-caloric sweetener)
- Sweets: cake, cookies, pies, candy, etc (anything made with starch or fruit ingredients and/or sweetened with anything other than non-caloric sweetener)
Plain meats, fish, poultry, cheese, eggs, and tofu (all without added sauces, which could contain carbohydrates) do not have carbohydrates. Also, non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, avocado, lettuce, carrots, onion, etc. are not counted to have carbohydrates if eaten in portions less than 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw.
Are some carbohydrates better than others?
Some carbohydrates affect our blood sugar more than others, and have different benefits. The three main types of carbohydrates are starch, sugar, and fiber.
Once digested and absorbed in the body, starch and sugar raise our blood sugar, while fiber, the indigestible carbohydrate, does not have the same effect on our blood sugar. Fiber is not digested or absorbed by our bodies, but it does make us feel full and have many health benefits, so fiber-containing foods are recommended as a part of a healthy diet. Whole grain foods (which has all parts of the grain: endosperm, germ, and bran) have fiber and starch, are also recommended for overall health.
Most starches are digestible in our small intestines and will affect blood sugar, but there is also a type of starch called resistant starch that behaves more like fiber, since it continues into the large intestine without being digested. And, like fiber, many resistant starches can be digested or fermented by the bacteria in our large intestine, which helps us stay healthy (Source: Weisenberger, 2012).
Sugars can be naturally occurring or added to foods. Examples of foods with naturally occurring sugars are apples and milk. Added sugar is in many candies, cookies, and canned fruits in syrup, and includes sugars like honey, agave syrup, maple syrup, raw sugar, etc. Even if the food (like honey) has sugar naturally, when used as a sweetener, it counts as an added sugar. In general, the recommendation is to eat as few added sugars as possible.
Are carbs bad for us? Do they make you gain weight? How many carbs do we need?
Carbohydrates are neutral. We need carbohydrates to live, but too many or too few of them in our diets can cause problems. Carbohydrates on their own do not cause a person to gain or lose weight. Weight changes are caused by a variety of factors, including diet. According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA2010):
“Strong evidence shows that there is no optimal proportion of macronutrients [macronutrients include carbs, fat, and protein] that can facilitate weight loss or can assist in maintaining weight loss […] evidence shows that the critical issue is not the relative proportion of macronutrients in the diet, but whether or not the eating pattern is reduced in calories and the individual is able to maintain a reduced-calorie intake over time. The total number of calories consumed is the essential dietary factor relevant to body weight.”
It goes on to say that we can choose healthy eating patterns that work for us, as long as they are within the right caloric range for us, and are consistent with the Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Ranges (AMDR) established by the Institute of Medicine. The AMDRs are “ranges for the percentage of calories in the diet that should come from carbohydrate, protein, and fat” and “take into account both chronic disease risk reduction and intake of essential nutrients” (Source: DGA2010). Based on the ADMRs, we should eat between 45-65% of our total calories from carbohydrates. This includes all sources and types of carbohydrates and should be based on how your body responds and your overall health. (Your medical team can help you decide exactly how many carbohydrates you should eat – Click here to find a dietitian).
In general, most healthy people do well with about 45-50% (about half) of their calories coming from carbohydrates. For someone eating 1800 calories, this is about 200-225 grams of carbohydrates, spread out evenly throughout the day (usually about 45-60 grams at each of 3 meals, plus about 15 grams at 2 snacks between meals). Carbohydrates should come from a variety of foods, including many fiber-containing foods. Here are some helpful guides to let you know how many grams of carbohydrates are in how much of certain foods:
- Carbohydrates come in many types, from many foods.
- We need carbohydrates to live, and they can and should be part of a healthy diet, coming from a variety of healthy foods.
- While most people seem do well on a diet with up to half their calories coming from carbohydrates (about 45-60 grams carbohydrate per meal), only a medical team can help you decide what your specific health situation requires.
- Living With Type 2 Diabetes Program – a FREE 12 month program with information, recipes, newsletters, trial subscription to Diabetes Forecast magazine, and option to enroll in the Care4Life program
- Nutrition for Everyone: Carbohydrates – basic info on carbohydrates in a Q&A format
- What is Glycemic Index? – info on this commonly used term/system and a better alternative
- Make Your Carbs Count – a guide to getting the most from your carb foods