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Types of Carbohydrates: Making Carbohydrate Choices Count

Types of Carbohydrates: Making Carbohydrate Choices Count

There are many types of carbohydrates, and making your carbohydrates choices count is an essential part of a healthy diet. This powerhouse nutrient fuels the body for its everyday activities and a busy lifestyle. Learn how to get the most nutrition from your carbohydrate choices.

Basics of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are one of the three main energy-supplying nutrients in food. Compared to protein and fat, your body uses carbohydrates as its main source of energy, powering everything you do—from walking, working and climbing stairs to breathing, thinking and digesting your food.

Some carbohydrates are the starches, fiber and sugars in foods. You’ll find this type of carbohydrate in many staple foods, including grain-based foods, vegetables, legumes, fruits and milk products, as well as in sweetened foods, including many beverages, sweets and desserts. Except for fiber, all carbohydrates, including sugars, fuel the body. In fact, once digested, your body cannot distinguish between starches and sugars.

Get to Know your Carbs

Starches are a type of carbohydrate also known as complex carbohydrates. They are found in grains and grain products (e.g., cereals, crackers, bread), legumes (e.g., lentils, kidney beans, cooked dried peas), and vegetables (e.g., carrots, sweet potatoes, corn). These foods are often rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, and may help lower risk of cancer, heart disease and some other health problems. Complex carbohydrates that have been refined, such as white bread and regular rice, have most of the fiber removed.

Sugars are a type of carbohydrate found in many foods. Table sugar, honey and pancake syrup are sugars that provide mostly calories and few nutrients, but other sugars found naturally in milk (lactose), fruits (fructose) and some vegetables (sucrose) keep good company with other important nutrients, like calcium, essential vitamins, and minerals and fiber.

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is often referred to as the “roughage” that works in your body to help keep you regular. But fiber also has other important roles in health, including helping to maintain healthy blood cholesterol levels and stable blood glucose levels. It can also help with weight management because fiber makes you feel full, so it’s easier to feel satisfied with fewer calories. While fiber is a type of carbohydrate, it is unique because it does not supply energy. The fact that the body cannot digest fiber is what makes it good for your health and your waistline. Most people eat only 12 to 15 grams of fiber per day—barely half the recommended daily amount of fiber per day (25-38 grams for adult women and men, respectively).

How to Choose Smart Carbohydrate Types

The key to building a healthy plate with the right types of carbohydrates and amounts is to follow the US Department of Agriculture MyPlate advice. You may already be eating enough carbohydrates, but chances are you can still make some improvements in the quality of your carbohydrates. One simple step is to switch some of your choices to whole grain varieties of bread, pasta, cereals and crackers. It may also mean fitting in more fruits and vegetables, including legumes. The good news is that when you make smart carbohydrate choices, fiber and other nutrients often follow along. Just keep these tips in mind.

  • Eat MORE: carbohydrates that supply fiber, such as whole grains, products made with whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes (cooked dry beans and peas).
    • Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. Most fruits and vegetables are relatively low in calories and supply vitamins and minerals; they also contribute water and fiber, which helps to suppress hunger and increase a sense of fullness.
    • Make at least half your grains whole. To get the most from your grain food choices, at least three of your grain servings should be whole grain (about 16 grams whole grain per serving or a total of at least 48 grams of whole grain per day). To find a whole grain food, look to see if a whole grain, such as whole wheat or rolled oats, is listed as the first ingredient.
    • Get to know legumes. Legumes like kidney or black beans, cannellini beans, pinto beans, chickpeas and split peas are easy to keep on hand (especially canned varieties) and add color, texture and fiber to pasta, soups, stews and salads.
  • Eat ENOUGH: Low fat and fat free milk and milk products, lean meats, skinless poultry, fish, eggs and nuts. These foods supply protein along with other essential nutrients, including healthy oils in fish and mostly unsaturated fats in nuts.
    • 3-a-day of low fat or nonfat dairy. Everyone over age 9 should get 3 daily servings of dairy—milk, yogurt and cheese—preferably low fat or nonfat. In addition to providing calcium for strong bones, dairy products also supply other nutrients that many people fall short on.
    • Vary your protein food choices. Protein helps you maintain muscle and makes meals more satisfying. The key is choosing leaner and lower fat protein foods, watching your portions and using low fat cooking methods such as broiling, baking or grilling.
  • Eat LESS: High energy, low nutrient carbohydrates such as desserts, pastries, regular soft drinks and candy. These foods contain calories while offering few or no nutrients. Check the food label for information.

The Bottom Line: Choose Your Carbohydrates Wisely

When it comes to choosing from different types of carbohydrates, make your choices work for you. Select fruits, vegetables, low fat or nonfat dairy foods, whole grains, and foods made with whole grains. Remember that carbohydrates provide fuel for your busy lifestyle—so choose wisely and plan to include recommended amounts of carbohydrate-containing foods as part of your meals and snacks.

Choosing the right types of carbohydrates can be simple and delicious. With vibrant reds and yellows, the Greek Quinoa Salad is as mouthwatering as is pleasing to the eye. For a hearty and robust meal, the One-Pan Chicken and Potatoes with Snap Peas is sure to please. To find more sensible recipes that can help you choose the right types of carbohydrates, browse our Healthy Living recipes.

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