Carbohydrates are macronutrients made up of carbon and hydrogen atoms, and there are many different types found in the food we eat. Carbohydrates and the molecules they break down into are the body's main and preferred source of energy. Included in this category are sugars or starches in food that provide an average of 4 calories per gram of weight. While the body is technically able to survive on low or zero intake of carbohydrates, there are negative health effects associated with this scenario, including the resulting low intake of healthful nutrients like fiber and some vitamins.
Within the macronutrient group of carbohydrates, you'll find sugars made up of two molecules like sucrose (table sugar), lactose and maltose. These can be broken down into the simplest molecules of glucose, galactose, and fructose. Glucose is readily used by the body's cells for energy.
When eating carbohydrates, it is more important to look at the source and the context rather than the total amount. For example, while a banana and a small doughnut may have similar sugar content, the banana is less processed and provides fiber that the doughnut lacks. The banana also contains fiber, antioxidants and vitamins, which may play a role in the prevention of cancer, whereas the doughnut is just empty calories, devoid of any nutritional benefit.
The only population who need to worry about the exact about of carbohydrates consumed are those with diabetes. Diabetics who require insulin need to closely measure the amount of carbohydrates consumed in order to give themselves the correct dose.
More concerning than the intake of overall carbohydrates is whether the carbs are considered complex or simple. Complex carbohydrates made up of larger molecules typically have fiber and other nutrients that dull the blood sugar spikes that occur after eating simple sugars. Foods highest in carbohydrates, and considered less nutritious, are sugary, processed foods that are devoid of other important nutrients. The following list includes these foods.
Fruit juice: Fruit juices are drinks that provide the sugar of fruit without the benefits of eating whole fruit, like fiber.
Soda: Sodas and soft drinks are almost entirely sugar and have essentially zero redeeming qualities. They should be avoided as much as possible.
Fruited Yogurt: Flavored yogurts generally contain added sugar, and non-fat yogurt can be the worst, as food companies tend to add extra sugar to increase the palatability after removing the fat.
Granola Bars: While some granola bars have plenty of protein and fiber, most are high in sugar due to ingredients like honey or syrups that are added to hold the bars together and increase flavor.
For most healthy individuals, it's not necessary to worry about the amount of carbohydrates consumed; rather, choose complex carbohydrates from whole food sources. This way, you will avoid added artificial ingredients and gain the benefits of fiber and vitamins and minerals.
Ten Great Vegetarian Protein Sources
Carolyn McAnlis, RDN, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who has a special interest in preventing chronic disease through nutrition. She graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science & Dietetics and a minor in Psychology. After completing a full-time dietetic internship at the University of Virginia Health System, she has developed a passion for convincing others that healthy food can be delicious through her blog A Dietitian in the Kitchen.