Good or Bad?
Your Carb Questions Answered
by Lynn Grieger, R.D., C.D.E.
Confused about carbohydrates? Not sure if you should be eating more or less?
Not even sure you know which foods they're found in? We've got all the
answers to your questions right here!
What are carbs?
Carbohydrates are one of the three major groups of nutrients that provide
calories; the other two are protein and fat. Every food that comes from
plants contains carbohydrates, because carbs are originally a plant's own
food source! Carbs are made of three elements: carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.
That's why they're called carbohydrates: "carbo" refers to carbon, and
"hydrate" to water, a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Each gram of
carbohydrate by weight provides four calories of energy.
What do carbs do for the body?
Besides providing energy, foods containing carbohydrate are typically packed
with vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals. Carbs fuel our muscles
and brain, and supply the energy for essential body functions like breathing
and heartbeat. Without enough carbs in our diet, our body has to rely on
alternate, more inefficient energy pathways that ultimately leave us weak,
tired and light-headed.
What's the difference between simple and complex carbs?
All carbs are made of those same three elements: carbon, hydrogen and
oxygen. To form different types of carbohydrates, the elements are arranged
in a different order. Simple carbs have a very simple chemical structure,
while complex carbs are, well, more complex! Think of the difference between
a straight line (simple carbs) and a road map with many branches (complex
carbs). Since they're both made of the same elements, the big difference is
in how they're digested. This isn't rocket science: Simple carbs are
digested more quickly, and complex carbs take longer because of their more
What are some simple and complex carbs?
The simplest form of carbohydrate is glucose, or blood sugar. Simple sugars
that are found in foods include sucrose (table sugar), fructose (fruit
sugar), and lactose (milk sugar). So foods that contain primarily these
simpler forms of carbohydrate are known as simple carbs: white sugar, brown
sugar, confectioner's sugar, corn syrup, honey, maple syrup, high-fructose
corn syrup, molasses. You should also include fruit juice, milk, yogurt,
candy, cookies and pastries in the simple carb listing, because they're made
primarily from sugar.
Complex carbs typically contain more fiber, and have a more complex chemical
structure that takes longer to digest. "Starch" is the common term for
complex carbs. Examples are breads, cereals, crackers, rice, pasta,
potatoes, corn, peas, lima beans and legumes like chickpeas, garbanzo beans,
kidney beans and lentils.
Which is better: complex or simple?
Overall we need more complex than simple carbs. That's not to say that
simple carbs are bad. We just need less of them. The reason? Complex carbs
have more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. Simple carbs tend
to be more highly processed. However, remember that milk contains simple
carbs, and we definitely need the calcium and vitamin D from milk. So you
shouldn't avoid all simple carbs -- it's more important to pay attention to
the total food package. A simple carb like lactose (milk sugar) in a healthy
food like skim milk is fine. A simple carb like sucrose (table sugar) in
cookies and cakes isn't as healthy.
Are some complex carbs better than others?
In general, foods that are less processed retain more of their natural
nutrients, and are healthier. Think of the difference between white bread
(heavily processed) and whole grain bread (less processed, retaining more
nutrients). Fresh fruit is less processed than fruit juice and a baked
potato is less processed than french fries. Make it a goal to choose
less-processed or whole grain foods whenever possible. That doesn't mean you
should never eat pasta! Instead, choose a whole grain breakfast cereal, opt
for a sandwich on a hearty whole grain bread, include brown rice or baked
potatoes as the starch with your evening meal, and include pasta less often.
What foods contain carbs?
It's quicker to say which foods don't contain carbs: fats and meat!
Everything else has some amount of carbohydrate, because it ultimately came
from a plant. The reason every food that came from a plant contains
carbohydrates is that carbs are originally a plant?s own food source.
There's only one exception to this rule: milk and yogurt also contain
The amount of carbohydrate in different foods varies according to its
structure. For specific information, check out the nutrition facts labels on
the foods you eat. Plus you can use our carb list for quick reference.
Is there such a thing as a healthy low-carb diet?
Yes! The key is to not go overboard and throw out all the essential
nutrients we need for health and optimum energy in pursuit of a low-carb
eating plan. High-carb diets typically contain 50 to 60 percent of total
calories from carbohydrate. A healthy low-carb plan will contain 40 to 45
percent of calories from carbohydrate. That way you keep the carbs that
provide nutrition: fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, milk and yogurt
and decrease your use of simple carbs like sugar, candy, cookies, soda and
snack foods. For specific info, meal planning tips and even recipes, check
out our Healthy Low-Carb diet plan.