Carbohydrate intake should be 55-60 percent of calories according to the American Heart Association. It's better to eat more complex carbohydrates--vegetables, fruits and grains--than simple carbohydrates found in sugars. Complex carbohydrates add more fiber, vitamins and minerals to the diet than foods high in refined sugars. Foods high in complex carbohydrates are usually low in calories, saturated fat and cholesterol. Unfortunately, many Americans aren't reaping the benefits of complex carbohydrates. The Food Guide Pyramid recommends six to 11 daily servings of grains such as bread, cereal, rice, and pasta--foods that are among the richest sources of complex carbohydrates. Yet, we average only four to five daily servings, at best a full serving short of even the minimum number recommended.
All carbohydrates are not equal. Their primary function is to provide energy for the body, especially the brain and the nervous system. Complex carbohydrates (starches) are those found in such foods as whole grain breads, pasta, cereal, potatoes, fruits, and vegetables. Simple carbohydrates (sugars) are those found in sweets and white flour.
The body converts both simple and complex carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar) to use for energy, but it can't tell the difference between glucose supplied by a pile of jelly beans and that supplied by a plateful of pasta. Complex carbohydrates hold the nutrition advantage over their sugary cousins because these foods are packed with vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Which foods are sources of complex carbohydrates?
- Starches: Flour, bread, rice, corn, oats, barley, potatoes, legumes, fruits and vegetables
- Fiber-Insoluble: whole-wheat breads and cereals, wheat bran, cabbage, beets, carrots, Brussels sprouts, turnips, cauliflower and apple skin (pectin)
- Fiber-Soluble: oat bran, oats, legumes, citrus fruits, strawberries, apple pulp, psyllium, rice bran and barley
Which foods are sources of simple carbohydrates?
- Sucrose - Table sugar, brown sugar, confectioners sugar, raw sugar and turbinado
- Glucose - Dextrose, corn syrup and glucose syrup
- Fructose - Fruits, vegetables and honey
- High fructose corn syrup - Liquid sweetener that contains 42-90 percent fructose
- Honey - Made up of glucose, fructose and water
- Sugar alcohols - Sorbitol, mannitol, xybitol
- Lactose - milk and milk products
- Maltose, dextrose - cereals and some baked goods
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New Concerns About Carbohydrates?
For years, nutrition experts have urged us to eat a diet high in carbohydrates. But recent reports and some current nutrition books linking these foods to obesity and diabetes may have you confused. A few popular diet books speculate that a high carbohydrate diet leads to weight gain in people who are insulin resistant; the theory is that carbohydrates trigger these high insulin levels, which encourage the production of body fat.
Should you ban bread and pasta from your diet to avoid obesity? It's true that carbohydrates can drive up insulin levels in insulin-resistant people, who are often obese. But, "No solid scientific data shows that eating carbohydrates causes weight gain. Eating too many calories of any type is what causes weight gain," says Dr. James O. Hill, an obesity researcher at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.
The bottom line: Stay tuned as research on carbohydrates unfolds, and "Follow the Food Guide Pyramid's recommendations to eat lots of grains, fruits, and vegetables," says registered dietitian Christine Beebe, president-elect of health care and education for the American Diabetes Association.