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What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, also called carbs, are the preferred source of energy for your body. All food groups include carbs except for the meat (mostly protein) and fat groups, but the 3 main carbohydrate food groups are starches, fruit, and milk.

  • Starch is a type of carb, and the starch group includes bread, rice, pasta, cereals, beans, and starchy vegetables such as potatoes and corn. Current recommendations call for choosing fewer processed grains. Instead, choose whole-grain products more often.
  • Sugar is another form of carb, found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk and also in processed forms such as table sugar, soft drinks, baked goods and candy. Fruit and 100% fruit juices contain a natural sugar called fructose. The natural sugar found in milk and yogurt is called lactose.

Starches, fruit, and milk are part of a healthy, well balanced diet, but you should try to limit highly processed foods and sweets.

How do carbohydrates affect the level of sugar in the blood?

Your body turns carbs into a type of sugar called glucose. Glucose is carried in your blood to all the cells in your body and gives you energy. The glycemic index (GI) is a scale that measures the effect foods that you eat have on the level of sugar in your blood. Foods that have a high GI cause your blood sugar level to go up quickly. High GI carb foods include white-bread products, white rice, noodles made with refined flour, French fries, soft drinks, and sugar. Low GI carb foods raise blood sugar more slowly. Examples of low GI carb foods are most beans; whole fruits; whole wheat; oats; bran; brown rice; barley; and whole-grain, low-sugar breakfast cereals.

Many low GI carb foods are also high in fiber. High-fiber carbs are much more filling and a switch to this type of carb may help you eat smaller portions of food, lose weight, and better control your blood sugar.

How do carbohydrates fit into a weight-loss program?

There is a lot of controversy about carbohydrates and weight loss. It is true that eating a very low-carb, high-protein diet typically leads to more rapid weight loss than traditional balanced diets that include a variety of carbs. Unless carefully planned and supplemented, however, very low carb diets lack important nutrients and fiber, and they can be high in unhealthy fats. These diets can also be boring and hard to follow for a long time. When people do stick with this kind of diet, total weight loss over time has been shown to be comparable to the weight lost by people on low-calorie diets with moderate levels of carbs.

The healthiest weight loss diets include a nutritious variety of foods with a focus on low-calorie, less processed, high-fiber, foods with low amounts of saturated fat.

Are some types of carbohydrates better than others?

It is important to choose carefully which carbs you eat. Many processed carbs include added sugars, syrups, or fat, which add a lot of calories and can lead to weight gain and other health problems. It is always best to look for less processed, whole-grain, and no "sugar added" carb choices. Follow these tips to choose more healthy carbs and get the recommended amount of 20 to 35 grams of fiber in your daily diet:

  • At least one half of the grains you eat should come from whole-grain products. (For most adults, this equals about 3 to 4 ounces of whole grains each day.)
  • Most of your fruit servings should come from whole fruit, instead of canned fruit or juice.
  • Include a wide variety of vegetables in your diet.
  • Include legumes (dried beans and peas) several times a week. (Beans are nutritious in a number of ways: They offer fiber, carb, and protein.)


  • Choose light yogurts with less added sugar.
  • Try not to eat a lot of foods with added sugar and saturated fats.

The latest USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans, published in 2005, recommend that 45 to 65% of your total daily calories come from carbohydrates. For more information about healthy eating and the recommended dietary guidelines, visit the Web site You can also contact the American Dietetic Association at 800-877-1660 or go to their Web site at

Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

HIA File diex4702.htm Release 13/2010

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