What are Carbohydrates?

What are Carbohydrates?

Rogers Cain MD, RPh.

Carbohydrates are one of the main types of nutrients. 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. They are the most important source of energy for your body. Your digestive system changes carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar). Your body uses this sugar for energy for your cells, tissues and organs. It stores any extra sugar in your liver and muscles for when it is needed.

Carbohydrates are called simple or complex, depending on their chemical structure of the food, and how quickly the sugar is digested and absorbed. Simple carbohydrates (or sugars) have one (single) or two (double) sugars and include sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products. They also include sugars added during food processing and refining. Complex carbohydrates have three or more sugars and include whole grain breads and cereals, starchy vegetables and legumes. Many of the complex carbohydrates are good sources of fiber.

For a healthy diet, limit the amount of added sugar that you eat and choose whole grains over refined grains.

Types of Carbohydrates

Your body turns carbohydrates into energy.
Simple carbohydrates are sugars found naturally in food. They can also be added to food.

They include:

  • Candy
  • Fruit
  • Milk
  • Sugar-sweetened products
  • Table sugar
  • Vegetables

Complex carbohydrates have sugars that are chemically linked together. Your body breaks them down into sugar after you eat them. They are starches found in food.

They include:

  • Bread
  • Cereal
  • Legumes such as beans and chick peas
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Starchy vegetables such as potatoes

 

Counting Your Carbs

People with diabetes can control their blood sugar better if they can count how many carbohydrates they eat.Your dietitian can teach you a technique called “carb counting.”Some foods, such as jelly beans, are all carbohydrates. Others, such as meat and fish, have no carbohydrates. Most foods, even vegetables, have some carbohydrates. Most adults with diabetes should eat no more than 200 grams per day. But each person should have their own carbohydrate goal.Packaged foods have labels that tell you how many carbohydrates a food has. They will be measured in grams. You can use food labels to count the carbohydrates you should have.The food label will say what the serving size is. It will also tell you how many grams of carbohydrates are in a serving.Sometimes the label will list sugar, starch, and fiber separately. The carbohydrate count for a food is the total of these. Multiply the number of servings you eat by the number of grams of carbohydrates.You have to measure how many carbohydrates are in foods that are not packaged. Then you have to calculate the total carbohydrates in what you eat.For example, cooked long grain rice has 15 grams of carbohydrate per 1/3 cup. If you eat a cup of cooked long grain rice, you will eat 45 grams of carbohydrates.

 

Foods that have 15 grams of carbohydrates are:

  • ½ cup of canned fruit (without the juice or syrup)
  • ½ cup of oatmeal
  • 1/3 cup of pasta (can vary with the shape)
  • 1/3 cup of long grain rice
  • ¼ cup of short grain rice
  • 1 cup of soup
  • 1 and ¼ cup of milk
  • ¼ servings of medium French fries

The total amount of carbohydrates you eat in a day is the sum of the carbohydrate counts of everything you eat.

When you are learning how to count carbs, use a log book or sheet of paper to help you track them. Over time, it will get easier to estimate your carbohydrates.

Plan to see a dietitian every year. This will help you refresh your knowledge of carb counting.