Fitness Nutrition Forums

What Are Carbs? How They Work (and How to Get Them to Work for You)

Fitday Editor
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Most people view carbohydrates as "evil" foods. Found in breads, pastas, cereals, and almost everything sweet, carbohydrates receive a bad reputation for causing weight gain. In reality, carbohydrates provide energy your body needs to help you function throughout the day. They are the fuel that keeps your body moving, similar to the way gas functions for a car.

Scientifically, carbohydrates are organic compounds that contain a saccharide (sugars). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes carbohydrates as foods that your body uses to make glucose. Specifically, amylase (an enzyme in your body) breaks down the carbohydrates you eat to produce glucose, giving you energy. Glucose can be used right away (as seen in diabetics or long distance runners), or your body may store it for use later. There are 2 different types of carbohydrates: simple and complex.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are typically digested and absorbed faster in the body. They are more commonly known as sugars and are found naturally in fruit, vegetables and milk products. You will also see simple carbohydrates in processed foods such as candy, cookies and soda. Added sugars should be limited in the diet; naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fresh fruit and milk, contain vitamins and minerals that are useful to your body.

On the nutrition label, the grams of sugar in a product include both naturally occurring sugars and added sugars. Therefore, the best way to determine if added sugars are in a food is to view the ingredients label and look for a few key words:
  • corn syrup
  • dextrose
  • brown sugar
  • maltose
  • molasses
  • lactose
  • malt syrup
Remember to limit added sugars by incorporating more water (instead of soda) and increasing fruit (instead of desserts like cake or cookies).

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates include starches and fiber. They must first be digested before being used as energy. Foods high in starch include vegetables (peas, corn, and potatoes), beans and lentils, white bread, white rice and crackers. Fiber is also found in most of these foods; it is the part of the plant that is not digested by the body. Other examples of fiber rich foods include whole wheat bread, oatmeal, whole grain cereals, fruit, and brown rice. Incorporating more of these foods into your diet will help provide you with energy, while helping you limit your portions, since it keeps you feeling fuller longer.

carbs.jpgOn the nutrition label, look for foods high in fiber (typically at least 20% of your Daily Value) or check the ingredients label for whole grains or whole wheat (should be listed as the first ingredient). Beans and lentils are among the best carbohydrates since they are high in fiber, calcium, and protein.


In addition to carbohydrates, fats are a significant source of calories for the body. When your body runs out of calories from carbohydrates, it will start using calories in fat (stored in fat cells) to use as energy, thus helping you lose weight. This is the reason why low-carbohydrate diets have become so popular. By limiting the carbohydrate, the body has no choice but to use calories from your fat stores. However, risk losing valuable nutrients found in carbohydrates (such as fiber) that could lead to malnutrition. In addition, you run the risk of inadvertently eating more fats to keep you feeling full. A diet high in fats leads to high cholesterol, heart disease, and weight gain.

In general, your body needs between 45-65% of your calories to come from carbohydrates. If you are trying to lose weight, you can use the lower amount (45%) and make sure to incorporate only complex carbohydrates in your diet. In addition, a diet high in complex carbohydrates will keep you feeling fuller longer, helping you limit your portions, which may lead to weight loss. As always, moderation is the key to success. Incorporating a balanced diet of carbohydrates, fat, and protein and routine physical activity will help you achieve your nutrition goals.

Rhea Li is a Registered Dietitian who received her Bachelor's degree in Nutrition and Master's degree in Public Health from the University of Texas. She has a special interest in working with children and has received her certification in pediatric weight management. Currently, she is working on a research study to determine the importance of nutrition in pediatric cancer patients. In the past, she has worked with pregnant women and their children. In her spare time, she enjoys being with family, exercising, traveling and of course, eating. To contact Rhea, please visit or her Twitter account, Rhea_Li.

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