Nutrition 101: Carbohydrates [INFOGRAPHIC]

Continuing with our Nutrition 101 series, today we’re talking carbohydrates! Love ‘em or leave ‘em (personally, I’m a fan), carbohydrates are found in pretty much everything – fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, dairy, sweets, soda, the list goes on. It’s a good thing too because carbohydrates provide around half of the energy in a well balanced diet, 45-65% of calories according to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and similarly so in Australia and the UK.

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First, lets talk carbohydrate metabolism, how our body breaks them down and uses them.

After eating a meal, carbohydrates are separated from dietary fiber and broken down into three monosaccharides: glucosefructose and galactose. These monosaccharides are absorbed in the small intestine and enter the the blood stream. Much like a car that runs on unleaded fuel, our cells only take up carbohydrates in the form of glucose, so the liver then converts all of the fructose and galactose into glucose.

Glucose is transported through the blood stream and is:

  1. Immediately taken up by cells and turned into energy
  2. Stored as glycogen by the liver and skeletal muscles (Glycogen in muscles is turned back into glucose for energy during exercise and liver glycogen is what maintains our blood glucose levels during short fasting periods, like while we sleep.)
  3. Converted into fatty acids and triglycerides for long-term energy storage, if consumed in excess

They may all be broken down and turned into glucose, but all carbohydrates are not created equal. Some are more nutritionally dense than others; different types are digested at different rates and have different impacts on our blood sugar.
 So lets compare the two main types, complex and simple carbohydrates:

Complex carbohydrates are largely found in whole grains, starchy vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds. What makes them complex, you ask? They contain longer, more complex chains of sugars and generally also contain some fiber, protein and/or healthy fats, as well as important vitamins and minerals. The presence of fiber, protein and fats slows digestion and therefore absorption of those monosaccharides, resulting in a more gradual insulin response as well as increased satiety–both very good things.

Simple carbohydrates come from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy, but also less nutritionally-dense foods like refined grains (white bread, white rice and traditional pasta), processed snacks and crackers, sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas. What makes them simple? These foods contain mostly mono- and disaccharides, one and two-molecule sugars that are very quickly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream -quite the opposite of complex carbs. This isn’t necessarily all bad though. Fruits, vegetables and dairy offer good stuff like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, fiber and water, which is why they’re so good for you. Refined grains, sweets and sodas on the other hand, are lacking all of these extra nutrients, which is why we should limit these foods in our diet.

When it comes to choosing carbohydrates to eat or drink, nutrient-dense sources are definitely the way to go. These include complex carbs like 100% whole grain breads and pasta, brown rice, starchy vegetables (just leave the nutrient-rich skins on those potatoes), legumes, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy and plenty of fruits and vegetables. We want to maximize nutrition density and satiety from carbohydrates, so limiting simple sugars from refined grains, processed snack foods, sweets, and sugar-sweetened beverages is best.

Carbs have undoubtedly gotten a bad wrap (couldn’t resist the misspelling) over recent years but whether you love them or not–they’re in everything–and we can certainly all benefit from choosing the more nutrient-dense kinds.

Want to learn more about choosing healthy carbs? Check out my earlier post, How to Choose Healthier Store-bought Bread, and if you’re catching up, you can also read the first part of the Nutrition 101, Calories. Up next in the series is Protein, coming to the blog on Tuesday!

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  • pearlmorning

    Thanks again for a wonderfully informative little lesson.

  • mbb100

    I think fitness pal is great, but would like to see you be able to modify the daily requirements for a diabetic lifestyle. The number of carbs per day are more than my dietician recommends

    • Organic_Azure

      My Home>Goals>Change Goals. Click Custom, hit the continue button. Change the carbs/protein/fat ratios to fit your goals then hit the Change Goals button.

      • mbb100

        Ah thank you! I am new to fitness pal!

    • Xaxxus

      you cant do it in the app, but on the website go to the goals section

  • Somayeh

    Myfitnesspal has changed my life. I lost 27 pounds in three months after more than 10 years of struggling with my weight. Honestly if the app was one person, I’d give him or her a huge hug and my gratitude. And oh… I love carbs… Just in moderation!

    • Anna

      I lost 89 lbs with MFP and it’s also life changing for me :) 7 months, the best months in my life!

      • Tommy D

        Congrats, I know how you feel. I dropped 40 lbs in 5 months with the help of MFP along with 6 days a week of recumbent bike riding.

  • kingofbigmac

    Any keto-ers?

    • OlaN

      Yes :)

    • lilmagill

      Yep.

    • Xaxxus

      yep.

    • Sue

      Yes. This blog is a load of tosh. Tough luck if you’re intolerant to all grains, FODMAPS, lactose, legumes and you’re diabetic. Too much bad advice here. I use the tools to monitor my intake (max 50g carbs/90g Fat/140g Protein).

    • soulsearcher 63

      It’s really isn’t their fault. They are being taught this stuff in every
      college in American. Unfortunately, the info and the research is coming
      from big business. Grains, including wheat, corn and soybeans, have
      been so genetically modified, we have more celiac disease and gluten
      intolerance than we’ve ever had. Not to mention that the wheat is
      modified to make it addictive. Please do your own research and read “Fat
      Chance” by Robert Lustig, “Grain Brain” by David Perlmutter or “Wheat Belly” by William Davis.

  • Karen

    Glad to see how to change the carbs, I also need to lessen the amount given as what is posted is too many for most diabetics.

    • Sue

      50g max carbs – drop all the grains. You can get what you need from fresh vegetables. Stay away from the fruit.

  • crims

    You guys really need to stop writing articles. I will eat 5,000 calories a day of these “healthy carbs” and be healthy right?

  • Daynasan

    Not trusting the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Australia or the UK dietary guidelines.
    Read Good Calories Bad Calories by Gary Taubes…

  • Carol

    Good sound advise if your healthy and if you have more medical issues go to a sprcialist and quit trashing this cause it’s god

  • http://www.jeetchowhan.com/ Jeet Chowhan

    The main sources of
    carbohydrates are whole grain, maize, wheat, barley, rice, cassava, bread,
    yams, lentils, oat cookies, potatoes and spaghetti. Carbohydrates are broken
    down to glucose to produce an ATP energy molecule, which is made possible by
    the availability of other vitamins and minerals.Because they are easy to eat
    and digest and are loaded with fast-acting carbohydrates (one large banana
    provides 31 grams of carbs), bananas make the perfect pre- or post-exercise
    snack. Just be sure to have your banana with some form of protein after
    exercise to promote muscle recovery and repair.

  • morock

    I think this is great. For the people who are saying this “is a bag of tosh”–don’t read a Nutrition 101 post for your special diet. This is obviously basic advice for the average person (who does need the carbs if he or she gets the recommended 30-60 minutes of exercise/day).

  • bella41970

    I’m new here…. I’m having 20 carbs a day and going to the gym 7 days a week. I started 1/29/14 and as of today 2/13/14 I’ve lost 14 lbs….. I have 90 more pounds to go. According to the ketos test i took my body is in ketosis state.

    Anyone doing the same?

  • JMP2073

    Low carb dieters have a dilemma because the carb counts are not ‘net’ carbs. Example, Atkins bar has 3 net carbs but the food journal says it has 16. I’m over everyday.

  • Ann

    Ack. Go check your Intro to Nutrition textbook. Simple carbohydrates are sugars (mono or disaccharides); complex carbohydrates are starches (polysaccharides). You could also talk about refined vs. unrefined carbohydrate “foods” (i.e. white rice vs. brown rice), but white bread, white rice, and “traditional pasta” are not “simple carbohydrates” just because they are more refined; they are still starches & therefore complex carbohydrates. Hmmm. Wonder what else she got wrong? :)