Carbohydrates are one of the basic food groups. 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 gives your body energy.
Carbohydrates are classified as simple or complex. This classification depends on the chemical structure of the food, and how quickly the sugar in the food 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 never be given to children younger than 1 year.)
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 they lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Such simple sugars are often called "empty calories" and can lead to weight gain.
Also, many processed and 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 eat carbohydrates, vitamins, and other nutrients in the most natural form possible -- for example, from fruit instead of table sugar.
Complex carbohydrates, often referred to as "starchy" foods, include:
Most people should get between 40 to 60% of their total daily calories from carbohydrates. It is best to get most of these calories from complex carbohydrates (starches) and natural sugars. In addition to calories, complex carbohydrates provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
To increase your intake of complex carbohydrates and healthy nutrients:
Here are recommended serving sizes for foods that are 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 that contains 50 to 60% of its total calories from carbohydrates:
Starches; Simple sugars; Sugars; Complex carbohydrates; Diet - carbohydrates; Simple carbohydrates
Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010. 7th ed. Rockville, MD: United States Department of Health and Human Services and United States Department of Agriculture; 2010.
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: Elsevier Saunders; 2010:chap 100.
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, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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