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What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient, similar to protein and fats, that are the body’s main source of energy. Different types of carbohydrates include simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are broken down easily by the body and can provide a quick energy source. Good whole food sources of simple carbohydrates include milk products and fruit. Complex carbohydrates are processed by the body slower than simple carbohydrates and provide a more steady stream of energy. Good sources of complex carbohydrates include brown rice, cereal grains, beans, legumes, and vegetables. Additional carbohydrate sources include refined sugars, which do provide instant energy but unfortunately don't offer the same nutrient value. 

What are complex carbohydrates?

Although carbohydrates have a bad reputation in some weight-loss circles, they remain critical to good health. The key to eating carbohydrates in a healthy way is to understand the difference between complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates.

Both simple and complex carbohydrates are made from three components: fiber, starch, and sugar. Complex carbohydrates contain more fiber and starch, while simple carbohydrates are primarily made from sugar. This contributes to them turning into glucose in your system quickly, leading to rapid blood sugar spikes and equally fast crashes.

Complex carbs, which contain more fiber and starch, help provide consistent, long-lasting energy that also helps you feel fuller for longer. They tend to be found in foods that are more nutritious, with more naturally occurring vitamins and minerals. 

Some great examples of complex carbs include:

  •   Fiber-rich fruit (apples, berries, and bananas are great choices)
  •   Vegetables
  •   Legumes
  •   Whole grains
  •   Oats
  •   Peas
  •   Rice

Are carbohydrates good for you?

Overall carbohydrates contribute to a well-balanced diet and good health. Aim for a diet that is focused on mainly complex carbohydrates as well as those simple carbohydrates provided by fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrates should not be the only source of energy or fuel in the diet, but should be consumed with foods that contain protein or fats in order to ensure you are getting all essential nutrients necessary. Many of the foods that we eat which contain carbohydrates contribute the bulk of the vitamins and minerals found in our diet.  

Simple carbohydrates can be healthful if they are naturally occurring such as those from fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy products. Refined simple sugars should be limited or avoided whenever possible. These can be found in artificially sweetened foods and beverages like soda, highly-refined white flour, and sugary breakfast cereals. 

Which foods are high in carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are found in almost every food and food group, including grains, vegetables, fruit, and dairy. Foods with lots of carbohydrates include: 

  •   Grains
  •   Starchy Vegetables
  •   Fruit
  •   Dairy products
  •   Beans and lentils

What are some popular low-carb foods and low-carb snacks?

While it’s generally a good idea to focus on the quality, rather than the number of carbohydrates that you eat, some people require or prefer low-carb diets. In this situation, it’s helpful to have a variety of low-carb foods and snacks that you can reach for when you’re hungry. This can help you avoid unhealthy simple carbohydrates, which are common in many snack foods.

Some of our favorite low-carb snacks and foods include:

  •   Eggs
  •   Meat (including beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, etc.)
  •   Seafood
  •   Broccoli
  •   Tomatoes
  •   Cucumber
  •   Green Beans
  •   Avocado
  •   Cheese
  •   Full-Fat Yogurt
  •   Dark Chocolate

Learn more about Carbohydrates:

Photo of Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson

Medically reviewed by:

Kristin Ricklefs-Johnson, Ph.D., RD

Kristin is an RDN who also earned her Ph.D. in Nutrition from Arizona State University with an emphasis on insulin resistance, lipid metabolism disorders, and obesity. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Mayo Clinic where she focused on nutrition-related proteomic and metabolic research. Her interests include understanding the exact mechanism of action of various genetic variations underlying individual predispositions to nutrition-related health outcomes. Her goal is to help all individuals prevent chronic diseases and achieve long, healthy lives through eating well.

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