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 complex structure.

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 carbohydrates. 

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.

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