Learning About Carbohydrates

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Learning About Carbohydrates

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You've probably seen ads for low-carb foods and diets, but kids and adults need carbohydrates (say: kar-bo-hi-draytz). Most foods contain carbohydrates, which the body breaks down into simple sugars — the major source of energy for the body.

Two Types of Carbohydrates

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There are two major types of carbohydrates (or carbs) in foods: simple and complex.

Simple carbohydrates: These are also called simple sugars. Simple sugars are found in refined sugars, like the white sugar you'd find in a sugar bowl. If you have a lollipop, you're eating simple carbs. But you'll also find simple sugars in more nutritious foods, such as fruit and milk. It's better to get your simple sugars from food like fruit and milk. Why? Because sugar isn't added to these foods and they also contain vitamins, fiber, and important nutrients like calcium. A lollipop has lots of added sugar and doesn't contain important nutrients.

Complex carbohydrates: These are also called starches. Starches include grain products, such as bread, crackers, pasta, and rice. As with simple sugars, some complex carbohydrate foods are better choices than others. Refined (say: ree-find) grains, such as white flour and white rice, have been processed, which removes nutrients and fiber. But unrefined grains still contain these vitamins and minerals. Unrefined grains also are rich in fiber, which helps your digestive system work well. Fiber helps you feel full, so you are less likely to overeat these foods. That explains why a bowl of oatmeal fills you up better than sugary candy with the same amount of calories as the oatmeal.

So which type of carbs should you eat? Both can be part of a healthy diet.

How the Body Uses Carbohydrates

When you eat carbs, your body breaks them down into simple sugars, which are absorbed into the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises in your body, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin. Insulin is needed to move sugar from the blood into the cells, where the sugar can be used as a source of energy.

When this process goes fast — as with simple sugars — you're more likely to feel hungry again soon. When it occurs more slowly, as with a whole-grain food, you'll be satisfied longer. These types of complex carbohydrates give you energy over a longer period of time.

The carbs in some foods (mostly those that contain a lot of simple sugars) cause the blood sugar level to rise more quickly than others. Scientists have been studying whether eating foods that cause big jumps in blood sugar may be related to health problems like diabetes and heart disease.

You're probably already on the right track if you are limiting simple sugars (such as candy) and eating more complex carbohydrates (like vegetables, oatmeal, and whole-grain wheat bread).

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: September 2011

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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