Carbohydrates are one of the three types of macronutrients that your body uses in the largest amounts. The other two macronutrients are protein and fat. Most carbohydrates occur naturally in plant-based foods such as grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and milk. Food manufacturers often add carbohydrates in the form of starch and added sugar to processed foods.
There are 3 main types of carbohydrates:
Foods that contain carbohydrates are an important part of healthy eating for several reasons:
They provide energy. Carbohydrates are the main fuel source for the body. During digestion, sugars and starches in carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars which are absorbed into the bloodstream. This sugar (glucose) enters the body’s cells with the help of insulin, and the glucose is converted to energy to support bodily functions and physical activity. Extra glucose is stored in the liver, muscles and other cells so it can be used later.
They provide nutrients. Unprocessed and less processed carbohydrate-rich foods also contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and a variety of phytochemicals (substances found in plants that may benefit your health and decrease your risk of disease). Eating a wide variety of these carbohydrate-rich foods (think about eating a rainbow of colors for fruits and vegetables and a variety of whole grains, lentils, beans and peas) will ensure you are getting a variety of phytochemicals. Whole grains contain the entire grain and therefore more nutrients and fiber compared to refined grains which go through a process that strips away part of the grain.
They can help control weight. There is evidence that eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help you control your weight. Because these foods contain fiber and more bulk than highly processed foods, you will feel full sooner while eating fewer calories. These healthy foods are nutrient dense rather than calorie dense.
Some types of carbohydrate-rich foods are better for you than others. The healthiest carbohydrates to eat are unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains (such as brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, barley, millet, bulgar, farro, sorghum, popcorn, etc.), vegetables, fruits and beans, lentils and peas.
Less healthy carbohydrate containing foods include white bread, pastries, sodas and other highly processed or refined foods. Often these foods contain large amounts of added sugar which increases the number of calories you eat, and they don’t provide many nutrients or health benefits. These foods contain carbohydrates that are more easily digested and can lead to a spike in blood sugar levels followed by an increase in insulin levels which can lead to weight gain and increase your risk for diabetes and heart disease.
It is important to choose your carbohydrates wisely. Plan to eat nutrient dense carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils and peas) and non-fat or low-fat milk/dairy products which have fiber, vitamins and minerals. Be on the lookout for less processed foods that have less added sugar when grocery shopping.