Nutrition 101: Carbohydrates

By Janelle Langlais
Dietetic Intern

Carbohydrates are the body’s instant source of fuel found in almost everything. Milk, cereal, bread, pasta, soda, juice, candy and sweets all contain carbohydrates, and even fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. During digestion, carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules used as the body’s main source of fuel. The body stores these sugars in your muscles to provide energy during exercise, and in your liver to provide energy while you are sleeping or fasting. Carbohydrates are essential for proper nutrition; in fact, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45-65% of your diet come from carbohydrates daily.

It’s a common misconception that people with diabetes can’t eat carbohydrates. Everyone can and should eat carbohydrates for proper nutrition, as many options like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and nuts are nutrient dense (meaning they have a lot of nutrients but few calories). Pairing carbohydrates with foods rich in protein and/or fiber helps the body maintain blood sugar. As protein is the body’s long-lasting fuel, it slows down the digestion process which helps to minimize the effects of carbohydrates on blood sugar. Protein helps make you feel fuller longer, leaving you more satisfied than if you just ate a carbohydrate alone. Fiber also has a similar effects on digestion and “fullness” as it slows down digestion and adds bulk, aiding in maintaining a more stable blood sugar. An apple with peanut butter is a great example of a balanced snack: the apple contains carbohydrates and fiber, and the peanut butter contains lots of protein and a small amount of carbohydrate and heart healthy fat.

Overall, the key is moderation and balance.  Focus on incorporating whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet. Opt for whole grain or whole wheat bread or pasta instead of white to increase your protein and fiber intake, creating more of a balanced plate. These foods also contain lots of vitamins and minerals which are essential to a healthy diet. Another thing to remember is to limit sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and juice, and avoid refined sugars. These sugary drinks and processed foods contain large amounts of sugar and have little nutritional value. Opt for fruit-infused water or diet beverages to decrease your sugar and caloric intake for better health. Lastly, always remember is to be mindful of portion sizes! It is possible to have too much of a good thing, so always read your food labels and follow the serving size.

(Post content reviewed by the MGH Department of Nutrition and Food Services)