Carbohydrates: How carbs fit into a healthy diet

Carbohydrates aren't bad, but some may be healthier than others. See why carbs are important for your health and which ones to choose.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

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 may be better for you than are others. Understand more about carbohydrates and how to choose healthy carbohydrates.

Understanding carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and beverages. Most carbohydrates are naturally occurring 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:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Milk
  • Nuts
  • Grains
  • Seeds
  • Legumes

Types of carbohydrates

There are three main types of carbohydrates:

  • Sugar. Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrates. Sugar occurs naturally in some foods, including fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. Sugars include fruit sugar (fructose), table sugar (sucrose) and milk sugar (lactose).
  • Starch. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, meaning it is made of many sugar units bonded together. Starch occurs naturally in vegetables, grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.
  • Fiber. Fiber also is a complex carbohydrate. Fiber occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.

More carbohydrate terms: Net carbs and glycemic index

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 corn, 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.

May. 02, 2014 See more In-depth