Carb counting, slow-carb diets and no carb diets: With all the commotion about carbohydrates, you’d think they were pretty cut and dry. However, carbohydrates, which are in most of the foods we eat, are complicated. A registered dietitian from the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center explains the types of carbohydrates and how to healthfully add them to your plate.

Different types of carbohydrates

There are a few types of carbohydrates, which is the general term for all of the types of sugars that give the body energy. Simple carbohydrates, or simple sugars, are foods that are just one or two sugar molecules that the body can rapidly digest. Simple sugars exist in both natural foods (such as fruits, honey, vegetables and milk) and in processed foods (such as candy, cakes, juices and sodas). Simple sugars in natural foods typically contain vitamins and minerals and thus tend to be more nutritious than those found in processed foods. Increased intake of processed carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and hinder weight loss.

Complex carbohydrates—or starches—have longer-chained sugars and fiber, and they take longer to digest. These include whole-grain breads and pastas, peas, beans and legumes. The body breaks down these carbohydrates into simple sugars, which is the major source of energy for the body.

“Complex carbohydrates keep you feeling fuller longer,” said Claudia Perkins, registered dietitian with the Texas A&M Coastal Bend Health Education Center. “Complex carbohydrates typically have more vitamins and nutrients. Also, they will raise blood sugar levels more slowly, instead of leading to a sharp rise which is crucial for someone with diabetes or prediabetes.”

Complex carbohydrates also contain fiber that slows down digestion resulting in better satiety and lower cholesterol levels. According to the American Diabetes Association, adults need to try to eat 25 to 30 grams of fiber each day, but most Americans do not consume nearly enough in their diet. Foods high in fiber include: beans, legumes, whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

Choosing the right carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, but if you’re relying on quick-burning simple sugars for energy, you’re going to be eating more calories than you should.

“Fruits and vegetables have more nutrients and fiber than highly-processed pastries or candy,” Perkins said. “The same principle is true with whole grain bread (full of fiber and complex carbs) versus white bread. Eating foods high in fiber means that your body will get more nutrients and stay full for longer periods of time, resulting in less intake.”

Eating the right types of carbohydrates is just part of the equation. Another big problem is that many people eat too many of them.

“Americans eat excess carbs, and that can lead to extra sugar being stored as fat,” Perkins said. “An average carbohydrate intake in a meal plan is about three or four carb choices per meal, but some restaurants serve between 10 and 15 carb choices.” (One carb choice is equal to 15 grams of carbohydrates.) According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), one cup of pasta or rice is about three carb choices.

If you’re one of the many people who see “eating healthy” as a restriction keeping you from your favorite foods, you should know that may not always be the case. You can still have your delicious treats from time to time, if you do it correctly.

“You can still have your favorite foods in moderation,” Perkins said. “Just be sure your idea of moderation is a healthy moderation.”

In fact, research suggests that having a mindset that certain foods are 100 percent off limits may impede people’s ability to maintain a healthy weight. So, it’s best to think of a scoop of ice cream as an “occasional” treat instead of an “everyday” food.

Talking to your provider

While this offers a few tips to get you started, such as having fruits and vegetables with every meal and as snacks, and making sure carbohydrates make up between 45 and 60 percent of your caloric needs, it could be hard to make these changes by yourself. Especially if you have a family history of high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease, talking to a professional can be very beneficial.

“A registered dietitian can help assess what your body needs specifically,” Perkins said. “Together with your health care team, you can set up a meal plan that is made specifically for you.”

— Dominic Hernandez

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