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What Are Carbohydrates?

What Are Carbohydrates?

If bread is the staff of life, carbohydrates are the stuff of a healthy lifestyle. Carbohydrate-rich foods such as breads, cereals, pasta, rice, beans, grains, potatoes and many fruits and vegetables—are key to good nutrition. These good carbs can help make a balanced meal and a balanced lifestyle. Below we’ll answer common questions about carbohydrates and how to make good decisions during mealtime. 


  • Give you energy
  • Can aid in proper digestion (the fiber-rich foods)
  • Provide essential vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A and C, plus potassium (found in fruits and veggies)
  • Supply some B vitamins, iron and fiber (mainly whole grains and enriched breads and cereals)
  • Can help you manage the amount of fat and calories in your overall diet because carbs naturally tend to be low in fat
Types of Carbohydrates Where Are They
Whole Grains Brown rice, oatmeal, whole grain breads and crackers, whole grain ready-to-eat cereals like shredded wheat
Starches (complex carbohydrates) Cereal, potatoes, pasta, macaroni, rice, bread
Dietary Fiber Whole grain cereals and breads, ready-to-eat bran cereals, dried beans and peas, fruits and vegetables
Sugars (simple carbohydrates) Fruit juices, fruits, milk, yogurt, sweetened cereals and baked goods, jam and syrup

Wise Carb Choices

Choose foods every day from the Grains, Fruits and Vegetables and Dairy groups. For a 2,000-calorie diet, the suggested amounts are:

  • 6 ounces from the Grains Group
  • 2.5 cups from the Vegetables Group and 2 cups from the Fruits Group
  • 3 cups from the Dairy Group

Make half your grains whole grain foods.

Enjoy sweet treats in moderation as part of an overall healthful diet without overdoing it on calories.

It's easy to build a carbohydrate-rich diet when you select a variety of foods for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.

Grains Group oz Equivalents
1 small bagel Is equal to 2 oz
5 whole wheat crackers Are equal to 1 oz
1 cup whole wheat pasta Is equal to 2 oz
1 oz ready-to-eat cereal Is equal to 1 oz
Vegetable and Fruit Groups Cup Size Equivalents
1/2 cup orange juice Is equal to 1/2 cup
1 cup mixed greens salad Is equal to 1/2 cup
1 cup cooked vegetables Is equal to 1 cup
1 apple Is equal to 1 cup
1/2 cup strawberries is equal to 1/2 cup
1/4 cup raisins is equal to 1/2 cup
Dairy Group Cup Size Equivalents
1 cup milk or yogurt Is equal to 1 cup
1/3 cup cheddar cheese (shredded) Is equal to 1 cup
1-1/2 oz Swiss cheese Is equal to 1 cup
1/2 cup pudding (made with milk) Is equal to 1/2 cup

Carb Challenge

Most of us have no problem getting enough carbohydrates in our diets. The real trick, though, is to swap in more whole grains in place of other choices. Some popular ways include:

  • Start at breakfast with whole grain items like muffins, bagels and/or cereal.
  • Select whole grain breads for sandwiches at home or when ordering out.
  • Choose whole grain crackers for snacking and entertaining.
  • Try brown rice and whole wheat pasta.
  • Rev up your recipe repertoire with some whole grains such as bulgur, oatmeal, wild rice or barley.

Learn About Label Terms for Sugars and Dietary Fiber

Here's what food product labels tell you about sugar and fiber:

Good Source/Provides/Contains Fiber

At least 10% of the daily value for fiber per serving (at least 2.8 grams).

High/Rich/Excellent Source of Fiber

20% or more of the daily value for fiber per serving (5.6 grams or more of fiber).

Sugar Free

Less than 0.5 grams sugar per serving.

No Added Sugar

No sugars (or any other sugar-containing ingredients) are added during processing or packaging. The product might not be reduced calorie, low calorie or sugar free; check the label.

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