Carbohydrates come from plant and animal sources. The food groups that contain carbohydrates include grains, fruits, dairy, and vegetables.
There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple carbohydrates (sugar) and complex carbohydrates (starch and fiber).
There are two types of sugars that people typically think of when talking about sugar in the diet. One type is the natural sugars that are found in foods in their natural and whole state. Examples are fructose and sucrose (in fruits) and lactose (in milk). The other type of sugar is the added sugars that are added to foods during processing or created from refining natural foods, Examples are high fructose corn syrup (in many products) or sucrose (refined into table sugar).
Starches are long chains of sugars. Our bodies break down these long chains into simple sugars that our body can absorb to provide us with energy. Many foods that are starchy need to be cooked in order for our bodies to be able to digest them. Examples are potatoes, corn, and grain products such as bread, pasta, and rice.
Fiber is the indigestible part of the plant. Fibers are also long chains of sugars; but the way the chains are held together prevent our bodies from being able to digest them for energy. Fiber is important for health for many reasons. Fiber can be fermented by the bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract which promotes colon health. Insoluble fiber helps promote regularity and prevent constipation. Insoluble fiber includes whole grains (the outer bran layer) and the strings in celery. Soluble fiber can help to lower cholesterol and regular blood glucose levels. Soluble fiber includes oats, beans, and citrus fruits.
The functions of carbohydrate include:
· Energy! Carbohydrates currently have a bad reputation; but they are the main and preferred source of energy for the body. Our bodies need carbohydrates to be at our best health.
· Helps to lower cholesterol and regulate blood glucose levels (soluble fiber)
· Maintains digestive tract health (fiber)
For a generally healthy adult, the range for carbohydrate intake is set between 45% and 65% of daily calories. A person consuming a 2,000 calorie diet would have a range of 900 – 1,300 calories. Since 1 gram of carbohydrate has 4 calories, this is a range of 225- 325 grams of carbohydrate per day. The minimum number of carbohydrate grams per day is 130 grams to promote good brain function.
Those trying to build muscle should be sure to consume enough carbohydrates to “spare protein” to be used for muscle growth.
Many people restrict carbohydrates due to the belief that “carbs make you fat.” In healthy individuals, carbohydrates trigger insulin and insulin lets the sugar into our body and cells. People mistakenly believe that this always means weight and fat gain. This is not true! When we eat the appropriate amount of carbohydrates for our bodies, the sugar is used as a fuel source and burned. It is only when we overeat carbohydrates that weight gain results. Carbohydrates do not make you fat. Carbohydrates are an important part of the diet. Without carbohydrates, the body begins to break down fat storage and then body proteins. In extreme cases, metabolism slows drastically and both health and life can be jeopardized.
People with specific health conditions or concerns may need a different amount of carbohydrate in their daily diet or to time the consumption of carbohydrates throughout their day.
Whole grains: Consume whole-grain carbohydrates whenever you can. Recommendations are to make half of your grains whole. Read the food label and be sure the first ingredient is listed as a “whole” grain (example: whole wheat, not wheat flour).
Fiber: For those between 19 and 51 years old, females should consume 25 grams and men should consume 38 grams of fiber a day. Those over 51 should consume 21 grams (women) or 30 grams (men) per day. If you are increasing your fiber intake, do it slowly and drink lots of water or you may end up with a bout of constipation!
Added sugar: Limit the amount of added sugar in your diet. Many health risks are associated with added sugars and in general, Americans consume too much added sugar. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 100 calories (women) or 150 calories (men) of added sugars per day. Most natural sugars are generally not associated with health risks as these are consumed along with fiber which slows down the absorption of sugar and other vitamins, mineral, and phytochemicals which promote optimal health.