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 might be better for you than 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 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:

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

Types of carbohydrates

There are three main types of carbohydrates:

  • Sugar. Sugar is the simplest form of carbohydrate and occurs naturally in some foods, including fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products. Types of sugar 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. It 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 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.

How many carbohydrates do you need?

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.

Carbohydrates and your health

Despite their bad rap, carbohydrates are vital to your health for a number of reasons.

Providing energy

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.

Protecting against disease

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.

Controlling weight

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.

Choose your carbohydrates wisely

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:

  • Emphasize fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Aim for whole fresh, frozen and canned fruits and vegetables without added sugar. Other options are fruit juices and dried fruits, which are concentrated sources of natural sugar and therefore have more calories. Whole fruits and vegetables also add fiber, water and bulk, which help you feel fuller on fewer calories.
  • Choose whole grains. Whole grains are better sources than refined grains of fiber and other important nutrients, such as B vitamins. Refined grains go through a process that strips out parts of the grain — along with some of the nutrients and fiber.
  • Stick to low-fat dairy products. Milk, cheese, yogurt and other dairy products are good sources of calcium and protein, plus many other vitamins and minerals. Consider the low-fat versions, to help limit calories and saturated fat. And beware of dairy products that have added sugar.
  • Eat more legumes. Legumes — which include beans, peas and lentils — are among the most versatile and nutritious foods available. They are typically low in fat and high in folate, potassium, iron and magnesium, and they contain beneficial fats and fiber. Legumes are a good source of protein and can be a healthy substitute for meat, which has more saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Limit added sugars. Added sugar probably isn't harmful in small amounts. But there's no health advantage to consuming any amount of added sugar. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that less than 10 percent of calories you consume every day come from added sugar.

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.

Feb. 07, 2017 See more In-depth

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