Carbohydrates

What are carbohydrates?

Your body uses carbohydrates (carbs) to make glucose which is the fuel that gives you energy and helps keep everything going.

Your body can use glucose immediately or store it in your liver and muscles for when it is needed

You can find carbohydrates in the following:

Healthier foods higher in carbohydrates include ones that provide dietary fiber and whole grains as well as those without added sugars.

What about foods higher in carbohydrates such as sodas and candies that also contain added sugars? Those are the ones that add extra calories but not many nutrients to your diet.

What are the types of carbohydrates?

There are two main types of carbohydrates:

  • Complex carbohydrates
  • Simple carbohydrates

Complex Carbohydrates

Starch and dietary fiber are the two types of complex carbohydrates.

Starch must be broken down through digestion before your body can use it as a glucose source.

Quite a few foods contain starch and dietary fiber such as breads, cereals, and vegetables:

  • Starch is in certain vegetables (i.e., potatoes, dry beans, peas, and corn).
  • Starch is also found in breads, cereals, and grains.
  • Dietary fiber is in vegetables, fruits, and whole grain foods.

Whole Grain "Buzz Words"

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that you try to make at least half of your daily grain choices as whole grains.

You can find out if the food you are eating is made of whole grains by looking at the ingredients list of the food label. The whole grain should be the first ingredient listed. The following are some examples of how whole grains could be listed:

  • brown rice
  • buckwheat
  • bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • millet
  • wild rice
  • popcorn*
  • quinoa
  • triticale
  • whole-grain barley
  • whole-grain corn
  • whole oats/oatmeal
  • whole rye
  • whole wheat

*Popcorn is a whole grain that can have added fat and salt. Try air-popping your popcorn to avoid these extras. If you're buying microwave popcorn, look for a lower-fat variety. You may also want to try the snack size bag to help with portion control.

Grains Galore!

Here are some explanations of less-familiar grains:

  • Bulgur. A staple of Middle Eastern dishes. Bulgur wheat consists of kernels that have been steamed, dried, and crushed. It has a tender and chewy texture.
  • Millet. A staple grain in parts of Africa and Asia. Millet comes in several varieties and has a bland flavor that is a background to other seasonings.
  • Quinoa. A grain that has been traditionally used in South American cuisine. Its texture has been compared to that of couscous.
  • Triticale. A grain that is a hybrid of wheat and rye. It comes in several varieties including whole berry, flakes, and flour.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates include sugars found naturally in foods such as fruits, vegetables milk, and milk products. Simple carbohydrates also include sugars added during food processing and refining. What's the difference? In general, foods with added sugars have fewer nutrients than foods with naturally-occurring sugars.

How can I avoid added sugars?

One way to avoid these sugars is to read the ingredient lists on food labels.
Look for these ingredients as added sugars:

  • Brown sugar
  • Corn sweetener
  • Corn syrup
  • Dextrose
  • Fructose
  • Fruit juice concentrates
  • Glucose
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Invert sugar
  • Lactose
  • Maltose
  • Malt Syrup
  • Molasses
  • Raw sugar
  • Sucrose
  • Sugar
  • Syrup


If you see any of these in the ingredient list, you know the food has added sugars. The closer to the top of the list, the more of that sugar is in the food.

Other tips for avoiding added sugars include?

  • Choose water instead of sugar-sweetened sodas.
  • Choose 4 fluid ounces (1/2 cup) of 100% fruit juice rather than a fruit drink.
  • Have a piece of fruit for dessert and skip desserts with added sugar.
  • Choose breakfast cereals that contain no or less added sugars.

If you want to learn more about avoiding added sugar in what you drink, check out Re-think your Drink.

You probably already know sugars and starches can play a role in causing cavities. But it's worth mentioning again, particularly as far as kids are concerned. Be sure to also brush, floss, and drink fluoridated water to help prevent cavities.

Read more in this article from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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