Nutrition 101: Carbohydrates [INFOGRAPHIC]

by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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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.

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


    • Xaxxus


    • 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.

      • Honky Tonks

        What scientific evidence do you have linking genetically modified crops to celiac disease and gluten intolerance? I’d love to know. And posting a blog from Natural News doesn’t count. In fact, while celiac is real, studies have found no evidence to suggest gluten intolerance even exists.

        • Jan

          What do you mean there are no studies to support that gluten intolerance exists? That’s what celiac’s disease is – and I watched my father apart die from it. What are your sources for that?

    • bevie19

      Me! Just started on Monday and so far so good.

  • 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

  • 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? 🙂

  • JofJLTNCB6

    I’m confused. How is the post from 1/9/2015, the twitter announcement of it from earlier today, but all of the comments from a year ago? (Did I just waste time travel on an MFP blog??? I had…much higher hopes.)

  • mckenzienatosha

    Thank u myfitnesspal. I have lost 37lbs in 2 months with your help and motivation. Great app!

  • paulsz28

    I tell you, this nutritionist is spot on. The calories post was good, too. You know, she’s posting about a long-term, life-time, SUSTAINABLE eating pattern. Crash diets, Atkins, ketosis, paleo, etc., basically anything with a name, are not sustainable long-term and are not good for you in the long run. Significantly reducing intake of a necessary macronutrient long-term is not a sustainable eating pattern.

    Our bodies are very adaptive, and that’s why fad diets work, but they should only be executed temporarily and for a specific purpose. After that, you need to get into a maintenance “diet” which this dietitian is describing. What the fad diets exclude, in the end, you need SOME of to actually live. You need all three macros, those being carbs, protein, and fat to live a balanced, healthy life. You can reduce carbs for a while, but you need carbs to live in a normal state, i.e., not some fad diet state.

    As she says, “carbs are in everything,” so learn to use them to your benefit and eat only the good ones. Refined carbs, e.g., sodas, white grains, sugar-added foods, etc., should pretty much be avoided. You can live very healthily by eating (in order of importance and proportion consumed) green vegetables, legumes, nuts/seeds, dairy, whole grains, and starches. Juices should really only be consumed at most once a day in volumes of 2-3floz (due to caloric density and the need to match the calories of a single piece of fruit per amount consumed). Think of how you eat out in “the wild;” you would eat seasonal, readily-harvested food all the time, whether it be animals (fats/proteins) or plants (carbs) (this is an oversimplification, I know). So, grab the surface greens first, some of those little beans growing in that pod over there, hey some not-so-hard-to-get-at nuts, oh the roots are good but take some effort to get at, hey look some seasonal fruit!

    No, this infographic doesn’t fit those with special diet needs. But for folks that are able to consume carbs, they should, for the reasons listed here.

    • Steve Button

      “What the fad diets exclude, in the end, you need SOME of to actually live.”

      Wrong. There are no essential carbohydrates. Your body can synthesize all it needs. Read Gary Taubes.

      I’ve been low carb for 5 years now, and feeling great + very slim.

      Check your facts, the government advice is basically crap which has been regurgitated since the ’50s.

  • paulsz28

    Did the protein blog come out yet?

  • hannah

    I think these infographics are a bit misleading. For one, you neglected to mention that extra protein is just as easily stored as fat. You also said that plant proteins do not contain the amino acids we need, which is wrong. Most plant proteins contain all nine essential AAs, just in different concentrations. They may be low in a certain AA, but they are not completely deficient in it like you said. Also, it strikes me as stupid to group fruits and veggies with soda and candy, seeing as fruits and veggies have been shown to digest slower due to their fibre content. Also we need the vitamins and minerals of them to live and maintain health.

  • They certainly are in everything. Trying to cut carbs by eating nuts and seeds and drinking milk? Not gonna happen!

  • JJacks

    I love these posts! Can’t wait to read and learn more.

  • Greg Dahlen

    for six years now I have been living on fluid milk products, skim milk and cream. Every day I drink between a half to one-and-a-half gallons of skim milk, plus a little cream here and there, and hardly eat or drink anything else. I am six feet, one inch, today I weighed 153 pounds. Got the idea from the Masai tribe, who are famous for living only on milk and beef from their cattle. The Masai say that if a man eats beef and drinks milk on the same day, he is a glutton, hence one has to choose every day whether one will live on milk or beef. I always choose milk.

  • Chuppachisca

    how about couscous? does it belong to complex or simple carbs?

  • clare devick

    Hello my fellow healthy eaters (;

  • Lisa Fieseher

    Any kind of flour, even whole grain, elevates insulin levels and makes weight loss difficult. Whole wheat bread raises blood insulin levels as much as sugar. I avoid all ground seeds of grasses (grains), and eat my carbs in the form of vegetables, nuts, seeds, and low glycemic load fruit like berries.

    • JofJLTNCB6

      How does elevated insulin make weight loss difficult?

      • Tara Johnson

        Check out the movie FatHead – it explains the science behind insulin response and why it makes weight loss harder.

        • JofJLTNCB6

          It explains how *given equal calories between the two scenarios* that insulin response affects weight loss?

          Are you sure that’s what that movie said?

  • Carbs are great! just choose the right type of carbs.

  • Lisa Fieseher

    Insulin locks fat into fat cells and won’t let your body use it for energy no matter how long you exercise. Weight loss is about what you eat, not about calories in balancing calories out. 200 calories of chips is treated very differently than 200 calories of broccoli.

    • JofJLTNCB6

      This post couldn’t be more wrong even if it took a graduate level course in being wrong and did all the homework (including extra credit) and got an A and then reposted.

      It is simply demonstrably false in every way.

  • Angelica Garcia

    I love this except for one thing. Promoting LOW FAT dairy products isn’t helping anyone and in fact only hurts them. We need fat in our body more than carbs! And we do get both from FULL FAT DAIRY products. Anyone who does the low fat, no fat diet is harming themselves more then helping. Putting pour fats into the digestive system has later effects… Mainly on the Gallbladder that has to digest them. When we extremely backed up for better terms or we can’t hold anything down, is greatly a part of all the pour fats we feed the body. Which then later effects the immune system and we develop allergies and are prone to sickness.
    So please people eat FAT!!! Good sources of fat, like grass fed dairy products, avocados, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, seeds!!!

    Angelica Garcia
    NTP, CHC

  • What about phytic acid which is found in high(er) concentrations in whole grains like brown rice? It can block the absorption of important minerals like iron and zinc..