Carbohydrates are one of the main dietary components. This category of foods includes sugars, starches, and fiber.
The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide energy for the body, especially the brain and the nervous system. An enzyme called amylase helps break down carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar), which is used for energy by the body.
Carbohydrates are classified as simple or complex. The classification depends on the chemical structure of the food, and how quickly the sugar is digested and absorbed. Simple carbohydrates have one (single) or two (double) sugars. Complex carbohydrates have three or more sugars.
Examples of single sugars from foods include:
Double sugars include:
Honey is also a double sugar. But unlike table sugar, it contains a small amount of vitamins and minerals. (Note: Honey should not be given to children younger than 1 year old.)
Complex carbohydrates, often referred to as "starchy" foods, include:
Simple carbohydrates that contain vitamins and minerals occur naturally in:
Simple carbohydrates are also found in processed and refined sugars such as:
Refined sugars provide calories, but lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Such simple sugars are often called "empty calories" and can lead to weight gain.
Also, many refined foods, such as white flour, sugar, and white rice, lack B vitamins and other important nutrients unless they are marked "enriched." It is healthiest to get carbohydrates, vitamins, and other nutrients in as natural a form as possible -- for example, from fruit instead of table sugar.
Most people should get between 40% and 60% of total calories from carbohydrates, preferably from complex carbohydrates (starches) and natural sugars. Complex carbohydrates provide calories, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Foods that are high in processed, refined simple sugars provide calories, but very little nutrition. It is wise to limit these sugars.
To increase complex carbohydrates and healthy nutrients:
Here are recommended serving sizes for foods high in carbohydrates:
For information about how many servings are recommended, see the article on the food guide plate.
Here is a sample 2,000 calorie menu, of which 50 - 60% of the total calories are from carbohydrates:
Starches; Simple sugars; Sugars; Complex carbohydrates; Diet - carbohydrates; Simple carbohydrates
Farrell JJ. Digestion and absorption of nutrients and vitamins. In: Feldman M, Friedman LS, Brandt LJ, eds. Sleisenger & Fordtran’s Gastrointestinal and Liver Disease. 9th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 100.
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. 7th ed. Rockville, MD: United States Department of Health and Human Services and United States Department of Agriculture; 2010.
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.
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