Last update: June 11, 2024

6 minute read

What are Carbohydrates?

Discover the truth about carbohydrates! From their types to health benefits and optimal consumption, unlock the secret to a balanced, carb-rich diet.

Yerain Abreu

By Yerain Abreu, M.S.

Edited by Dr. Dimitar Marinov, MD, MBA, PhD

Learn more about our editorial standards

Ever found yourself wondering, what are carbohydrates? Does the mention of 'carbs' bring visions of cookies, pasta, and weight gain? Let's squash those carb fears and misconceptions together and unveil the true colors of these essential nutrients!

Key takeaways

  • Carbohydrates are a necessary part of our diet, providing essential energy and health benefits
  • There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches, and fiber
  • Dietary guidelines suggest carbs should make up 45% to 65% of our total daily calories

    What are carbohydrates?

    What are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates, affectionately known as carbs, are a type of macronutrient found in many foods and beverages. They're your body's main source of energy and can be found in both natural and processed foods like fruits, vegetables, grains, and sweets.

    Why do you need carbohydrates in your diet?

    Carbohydrates are essential to a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. You may be asking, "But why do I need carbs?" Let's break it down.

    Carbohydrates are your body's primary source of energy. They're broken down into simple sugars during digestion, absorbed into the bloodstream, and, with the help of insulin, enter your body's cells to be used for fuel.

    Have you ever tried to finish that grueling workout, but felt like you were dragging? Maybe even seen stars?

    It might be due to a lack of carbs. Having enough carbs in your diet can definitely give you the energy boost you need.

    More than just an energy source

    But carbohydrates aren't just a one-trick pony. They also play a crucial role in supporting your body against disease.

    Dietary fiber is also a carbohydrate and it's found in whole foods, like fruits, vegetables, and grains. It's been associated with lower risks of heart disease and stroke.

    Plus, fiber helps keep your digestive system healthy and happy. Score!

    How to choose the best carbs for your diet

    Now that we've got a better understanding of why you need carbohydrates, let's dive into how you can choose the best types of carbs for your diet. Not all carbs are created equal, and knowing the difference can help us make healthier choices.

    Go natural

    First off, the best sources of carbohydrates are those that occur naturally. Think fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, grains, seeds, beans, peas, and lentils.

    Yes, I'm talking about those wonderful food items you often find at the grocery store. These guys are packed with other important nutrients too, making them a nutrition double whammy.

    VitaRx Tip

    Choose whole, fresh, or frozen fruits and vegetables without added sugar whenever possible.

    Whole grains are your friends

    Whole grains should be your go-to for carbohydrates. These are far better than their refined cousins because they contain more fiber and nutrients like B vitamins.

    Refined grains go through a process that removes some of the nutrients and fiber. Stick with wholesome, untampered grains for a healthier carb intake.

    Consider dairy and legumes

    Dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are not only good sources of protein and calcium, but they also contain carbohydrates. Go for low-fat versions to limit calories and saturated fat.

    And hey, don't forget about the power of beans, peas, and lentils. These little gems are low in fat and high in fiber, protein, and other important nutrients. They're a fab alternative to meat, which often contains more saturated fat and cholesterol.

    What's the deal with sugar, starch, and fiber?

    Carbohydrates can be hard to understand sometimes, but we'll make it as simple as possible. So, let's dive into the three main types of carbohydrates: sugar, starch, and fiber.


    First up, we've got sugars. They're the simplest form of carbohydrates. They occur naturally in some foods like fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products.

    VitaRx Tip

    Remember, natural sugars from whole foods are always the healthier choice over added sugars.


    Next, you have starch. Starch is a complex carbohydrate, meaning it's made up of many sugar units bonded together. Found naturally in vegetables, grains, and legumes, starch is like that good, reliable friend who always has your back.


    And last but not least, we've got fiber. Also, a complex carbohydrate, fiber is found naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

    Fiber helps keep your digestive systems running smoothly and supports your body against diseases. And let's not forget that fiber aids weight control by helping you feel full on fewer calories. Hello, fiber!

    How many carbs should you have?

    The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that carbohydrates make up 45% to 65% of your total daily calories. So if you're consuming 2,000 kilocalories daily, between 900 and 1,300 of those should be from carbohydrates.

    Considering that 1 gram of carbs contains about 4 kilocalories, this equals about 225-325 grams of carbs a day. Now, that's a sweet spot!

    Carbohydrate content in common foods

    When it comes to choosing the right carbohydrates, it's all about being informed. This list contains the carbohydrate content in some common foods that you might find in your pantry or refrigerator.

    • Apple (1 medium): 25g
    • Banana (1 medium): 27g
    • Broccoli (1 cup): 6g
    • Brown rice (1 cup, cooked): 45g
    • Chickpeas (1 cup, cooked): 45g
    • Sweet potato (1 medium, cooked): 27g
    • Whole wheat bread (1 slice): 17g

    Caption: Carbohydrate content in common foods. Data sourced from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    VitaRx Tip

    Remember, not all carbs are created equal. Be mindful of the types of carbohydrates you consume and make smarter choices.

    Counting carbs

    If you are on a 2000 kilocalorie diet, this translates to about 225 and 325 grams of carbs a day. You can find the carbohydrate content of packaged foods on the Nutrition Facts label. But remember, total carbohydrates include fiber, total sugars, and added sugars.

    Mindful choices

    Despite what low-carb diet gurus may claim, few studies show that a diet rich in healthy carbs leads to weight gain or obesity. Instead, research indicates that eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help control your weight. And that's why it's crucial to make mindful, informed decisions about the carbs you include in your diet.

    Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

    Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about carbohydrates.

    Final thoughts

    So, we've carbo-loaded on all things carbohydrates today! How’s that for a pun, huh?

    But seriously, I hope this post has helped you understand more about carbohydrates. Remember, when it comes to carbs, it's not about fearing them but learning to make smarter choices.



    Yerain Abreu avatar

    Yerain Abreu is a content strategist with over seven years of experience. He earned a Master's degree in digital marketing from Zicklin School of Business. He focuses on medical and health-related content, working with top healthcare professionals to ensure content is engaging and reliable.

    Fact checker

    Dr. Dimitar Marinov avatar

    Dr. Marinov has years of experience in scientific research and preventive and clinical medicine. His publications in peer-reviewed journals are on nutritional status, physical activity, and musculoskeletal disorders among adolescents.

    At VitaRx, we're not just passionate about our work — we take immense pride in it. Our dedicated team of writers diligently follows strict editorial standards, ensuring that every piece of content we publish is accurate, current, and highly valuable. We don't just strive for quality; we aim for excellence.

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