To eat or not to eat, what’s a carbohydrate anyways?

Everyone has heard of “carbs,” but what are they and why are they important?

Carbohydrates are one of the three major nutrients needed by the body. The other two are fat and protein. Carbohydrates can be found in a variety of foods including bread, pasta, fruit, dairy products and starchy vegetables. The carbohydrates we eat are broken down to glucose inside the body. Glucose is a type of simple sugar that can be used for immediate energy or can be stored for later energy needs.

Why do we need carbohydrates?

  • Glucose is the body’s main energy source.
  • Every tissue and cell in our body uses glucose for energy including the brain, muscles, organs and the central nervous system.
  • Glucose is stored in the liver and muscles and released when needed for energy when we have not eaten carbohydrates recently.
  • Our body can only store about a half-day of carbohydrates that we need. This is why it is important to eat carbohydrates every day.

What are the benefits of carbohydrates?

  • Carbohydrate foods that are high in fiber promote intestinal health and elimination of waste.
  • Low carbohydrate/glucose stores can reduce your concentration. Carbohydrates are the most effective fuel for the brain and the nervous system.
  • Carbohydrates help the body burn fat better than protein.
  • Carbohydrates help protein stores perform muscle growth and repair.
  • Carbohydrates contain many nutrients needed for proper functioning of the body.

What type of carbohydrates are the best choices to eat?

There are two types of carbohydrate foods: Simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are primarily made of sugar molecules. They are quickly digested and immediately used for energy by the body. Simple carbohydrates are found in processed foods such as table sugar, candies, regular pop, syrup and jams/jellies. Though many simple carbohydrates are considered empty calories and lead to weight gain, they can also be a part of healthier options like fruit, milk and other dairy products that contain vitamins, minerals and fiber.

Complex carbohydrates are usually high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Complex carbohydrates will make you feel fuller and have health benefits. Complex carbohydrates are found in whole grains, whole wheat pasta, whole grain bread, oatmeal and starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn, beans, lentils and peas. We want to choose carbohydrates throughout the day focusing on whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products. 

How many carbohydrates a day should I be eating?

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that 45 to 65 percent of your intake should be from carbohydrates. Based on a 2,000 calories/day diet, you should be consuming 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrates. Discuss with a dietitian to get a recommendation personalized for you.

How do I know how many carbohydrates a food has?

To find the carbohydrate content look at the nutrition facts label. The nutrition facts label will show you grams of total carbohydrates. Underneath the grams of total carbohydrates you will see how much of the carbohydrates come from sugar and fiber. To read about upcoming changes to the food label, read the Michigan State University Extension article Food labels 101: Understanding the nutrition facts panel.

What about low carbohydrate diets?

Low carbohydrate diets have been trending for the last couple of decades. The low carbohydrate diet promotes weight loss in a short amount of time but is not necessarily a healthy way to lose weight. When you do not eat enough carbohydrates, your body needs an alternate energy source and breaks down fats and proteins to substitute. This results in the production of ketones. Side effects of low carb diets are listed below.

  • Excessive ketones in our body can cause strong bad breath and gas, weakness, nausea and dizziness. 
  • When there are a large number of ketones in the blood, the kidneys work harder.
  • Eating a high amount of saturated fat increases the risk for heart disease.
  • With very little or no carbohydrates, the body goes into starvation mode. The brain and other tissues are used most effectively when glucose is used as their main energy source, which they have little of on a low carb diet.
  • Carbohydrates contain many nutrients that fat and protein lack.
  • A lot of the weight loss that is occurring from low carbohydrate diets is loss of water weight. After elimination of carbohydrates, the body will use up the glucose stored in the liver and muscles. This pulls water out of the muscles, resulting in weight loss.
  • Constipation can occur frequently due to low fiber intake.
  • A high protein intake over a long period of time can lead to increased chance of developing gout, which is a severe type of arthritis.

Low carbohydrate diets are not recommended for people with diabetes, kidney disease, are pregnant or have gout. You should always consult with a doctor prior to starting any type of diet.

Carbohydrates are essential for our energy throughout the day. MSU Extension offers nutrition education classes for adults and youth that include information on healthy carbohydrates choices consumers can make. More information can be found at

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