Learn about the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates, which foods have carbs, monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharides, starch, and fiber on this Nutrition in a Nutshell! |
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What are Carbohydrates?

Carbs are a macronutrient – a nutrient that yields calories, or energy. Every gram of carb has four calories. One serving of a carbohydrate food generally has about 15 calories, or 60 calories. Think of a slice of bread, 1/3 cup of pasta or cooked rice, or a small piece of fruit!

Related Reading: What is a Calorie?

There are three types of carbohydrates: monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides.

Carbohydrates are found in bread products. |

Mono- and Disaccharides, the Simple Carbs

Mono- and disaccharides are what you’ve probably heard referred to as simple carbsand consist of sugars. Glucose, Fructose, and Galactose are the monosaccharides which, when linked together, form disaccharides:

Glucose + Fructose = Sucrose

Glucose + Glucose = Maltose

Glucose + Galactose = Lactose

Some of these words probably sound familiar, particularly fructose. We’ve heard the campaigns for and against high fructose corn syrup, we watch for it on our food labels, and we see “High fructose corn syrup free!” on food packaging. It’s the sweetest of the simple carbs, and it’s found its way into so many of the products at the grocery store because of how cheap it is, and how it makes food so tasty! Added sugars like high fructose corn syrup are what give simple carbs a bad reputation – but they aren’t all bad. Fruit contain simple sugars. Fructose is also called “fruit sugar” for a reason. It’s the added sugars, like high fructose corn syrup or even regular table sugar, that are a problem.

Still, you don’t have to be afraid of naturally occurring simple sugars, like fructose in fruit and lactose in milk. These are accompanied by so many vitamins and minerals!

Carbohydrates are found in foods like breads and pastas. |

Polysaccharides, the Complex Carbs

Polysaccharides, like starch and fiber, are complex carbs which are just chains of simple carbs. Starch is a long chain of glucose, which will eventually be broken down into their individual molecules. Once it’s broken down, the glucose, one of our monosaccharides, enters our cells (with the help of insulin) and is either used immediately for energy or stored in our bodies as glycogen. If our glycogen stores are filled to the max from, say, eating an entire bag of potato chips while sitting on the couch, and therefore taking in more energy (calories) than you’re expending . . . well, that glucose will instead be stored in your body as fatty tissue. Fat.

Plants store carbs, too, in the form of fiber. Fiber is to plants as glycogen is to humans. The great thing about fiber is that humans lack the enzyme necessary to break it down into glucose, so it can’t provide energy (calories!), but it does provide other benefits for our digestion, such as keeping you regular and clinging to excess glucose and cholesterol and preventing their absorption. Cool!

Not all simple carbohydrates are bad! Fruits and milk have simple carbs. Complex carbs help keep your digestive system healthy and help you poop! Learn more about carbohydrates at
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Why do I need carbohydrates?

The primary role of carbs is to provide energy for our cells. Our cells need energy to break down more food, to rebuild, repair, and grow, and to keep our body functioning! Our brain, specifically, will only use glucose as its energy source, so it’s very important to get in your diet!

But what would happen if we lowered our intake, or cut carbs out of our diet entirely, as in low-carb and keto diets? We’ve seen many success stories and before and after photos from people who have tried this sort of lifestyle. We’ve even heard that when they went back to carbs, they gained the weight back! What’s the real story here??

Click here to read about low carb diets and whether or not they’re actually healthy!


Fruits and vegetables have carbohydrates. |

Which foods have carbs?

This list is far from comprehensive, but it’s a great list!

  • Breads: loafs, naan, pita, taco shells, tortillas, cornbread, English muffins, pancakes, waffles. If it’s made from flour, it has carbs.
  • Cereals: bran, oats, granola, grits, sugary breakfast cereals, cream of wheat
  • Grains: Barley, rice, couscous, quinoa, and pasta
  • Starchy vegetables: corn, peas, potatoes, winter squashes, yams
  • Snacks: crackers, popcorn, pretzels, potato chips, tortilla chips
  • Beans, peas, and lentils (these are also high in protein!)
  • Fruits: Apples, bananas, melons, citrus fruits, grapes, kiwi, peaches, strawberries, jams and jellies..all fruits and fruit juices (watch for added sugars in juices!)
  • Milk: Fat free, low fat, 2%, whole, lactose-free, yogurts, egg nog, rice milk, soy milk
  • Nonstarchy vegetables (these are low in carbs and low in calories!): leafy greens, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, onions, leeks, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, and vegetable juices (remember to watch for added sugars in juices!)
  • Desserts and other carbs: Soft drinks, hot chocolate, lemonades and other sugary drinks, brownies, cakes, cookies, pie, pudding, candy, syrup, condiments, muffins, ice cream. These often have lots of added sugars or pure sugar as a main ingredient. Enjoy these in moderation 🙂

Related Reading:
Focus on Food – Apples
Focus on Food – Carrots

Love carbs? Me, too! What are some of your favorite fruits and veggies, grains, or breads? Which sweets do you like to enjoy every now and again? I love chocolate and ice cream! 😀 But of course, I enjoy an apple every day, strawberries, potatoes, rice, pasta, and tortillas quite often. Plus, Sunday is our waffle day. Yay! Tell me your faves in the comments!

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