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Clue in to carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet. But some forms are more healthful than others.

We hear a lot about carbohydrates these days. Some say they're the foundation of a healthful, low-fat diet, while others insist that cutting them is the key to a slim physique.

But just what are carbohydrates—and what do they do in your body?

Top fuel

Though the carbohydrate has been demonized, it is essential to the diet, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Heart Association.

Carbohydrates—or carbs, as they're often called—are a type of nutrient found in a variety of foods, including grains, fruits, starchy vegetables and milk products. Carbs are the body's preferred fuel source, according to the academy. When you eat carbohydrates, your body converts them into glucose—sugar that circulates in the bloodstream and serves as fuel for cells all over the body.

If glucose isn't used for immediate energy, it's stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen, which can be tapped for energy later. But if you're getting more calories than you need, from any source, glucose can also end up as body fat.

There are two types of carbs:

Simple carbs include sugars such as sucrose (table sugar), lactose (found in milk) and fructose (found in fruits).

These carbs don't take long to absorb, so the body turns them into energy quickly.

Complex carbs include whole grains, beans and starches such as potatoes.

Complex carbs provide sustained energy because they take longer to digest than simple carbs.

Choose your carbs wisely

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, most adults should get 45% to 65% of their daily calories from carbs.

Experts say you should get most of your carbs from complex sources. Though some foods with simple carbs are healthy (fruits and milk, for example), many contain little more than calories and sugar. Soft drinks, cakes and candies are prime examples of high-sugar, low-nutrient foods that are chock full of simple carbohydrates.

Complex carbs, on the other hand, tend to be found in foods that also contain plenty of fiber, vitamins and minerals. They make you feel full longer than simple carbs, and they offer more nutrition.

The key with both simple and complex carbs is to try to get most of them from a variety of natural, unrefined sources.

Good carb choices include:

  • Legumes, such as beans and peas.
  • Starchy veggies, such as sweet potatoes and squash.
  • Whole-grain oats, pastas, crackers and breads, instead of the refined grains found in items such as white bread and white rice.

The right stuff

Instead of eliminating carbs, try choosing them wisely along with a variety of other healthful foods, including a moderate amount of protein and fat.

Reviewed 11/2/2022

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