Why Do We Need Carbohydrates?

  • They supply the main source of energy for the body
  • Are easily used by the body for energy
  • Can be stored in the muscles for exercise
  • Provide lots of vitamins, minerals and fiber

How much carbohydrate do we need?

Each gram of carbohydrate provides 4 calories. You need anywhere from 40-60% of your calories from carbohydrates. There is no specific Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrate. However, the source of the carbohydrate, especially for people with diabetes is important. Carbohydrates can be either simple or complex.

Simple carbohydrates

Simple sugar units that your body can easily and quickly use for energy that includes sugar, candies, sweetened gum, sweetened sodas, cookies, cake, etc.

Natural sources of simple sugar such as the fructose in an apple or lactose in a glass of milk are not the sugars that you need to worry about. Rather, it is added sugar that you need to be aware of. Excess intake of sugary foods may increase incidence of dental cavities or take the place of more nutritious foods in your diet. Look at the list of ingredients on the food label for terms that mean sugar is added. See the following table for a list of such terms.

Corn syrupHoneyMolasses
Raw Sugar SyrupSugarSucrose
Brown SugarMaltoseChocolate
FructoseMaple SyrupHigh-fructose corn syrup
Confectioner's sugar (powdered sugar)Fruit juice concentrate

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest: “Choose beverages and foods to moderate your intake of sugars”. Many people get a lot of added sugar from beverages. Take a look at the following table. Which beverage provides the most nutrition for the calories?

You can see that a glass of soda offers little nutrition besides added sugar!

Beverage, 8 oz. CaloriesAdded sugar(g)Other nutrients
Milk, 1% fat950Protein, Calcium, Vitamin D
Chocolate milk, 1% fat14212Protein, Calcium, Vitamin D
Orange Juice1020Vitamin C, potassium
Gatorade5714Potassium, sodium

Complex carbohydrates

  • Sugar units linked together in chains (also known as starches)
  • Must be broken down during digestion to provide your body with energy.
  • Include pastas, whole grains, cereals, dried beans and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn.

The Dietary Guidelines recommend eating a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains. Whole grains provide complex carbohydrate and tend to have more nutrients and fiber than refined grains. Eating plenty of whole grains may reduce your risk of heart disease. Look for the word “whole” in the list of ingredients as in whole wheat flour or whole wheat bread.

  • Whole wheat bread
  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Cracked wheat
  • Whole grain corn
  • Whole grain cereals
  • Whole rye
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole oats
  • Bulgar
  • Wheat Berries

Words to Know (Especially important for diabetics!)

  • Simple carbohydrates. Simple sugar units that your body can easily and quickly use for energy
  • Complex carbohydrates. Several sugar units linked together, e.g. starches
  • Enriched. The addition of nutrients that are already present in foods to levels that meet specific government standards
  • Fortified. The addition of nutrients to foods during processing
  • Whole Grains. Grain containing all parts of the wheat kernel including the bran
  • Refined grains. Grain that has had part of the wheat kernel removed in processing