Types of Carbohydrates: Nutrition and Healthy Sources

Learn all about carbohydrates, the body’s main source of energy. Learn the difference between simple and complex carbs, as well as the nutrition and healthy sources of these foods.

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Published:
June 11, 2024
February 9, 2024
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Carbohydrates are one of the three major macronutrients the body needs to function well. You may have heard that there are good and bad carbs or ones you should avoid. There is no shortage of conflicting nutrition information, whether from social media or your friends and family – it can be hard to know which information to trust. 

This article will tell you everything you need to know about the different types of carbohydrates, the nutrition each provides, and which sources are more nutritious and health-supporting. 

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What Are Carbohydrates Good For? 

You’ve probably heard that carbs are bad for you and that a low-carb diet is superior for health and weight loss. This couldn’t be any further from the truth. 

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. When you eat carbs, they are digested and broken down into a simple form of sugar called glucose. Glucose is what the body uses to fuel bodily processes, daily activities, and exercise. 

Eating carbohydrates prevents the body from breaking down proteins for use as energy. This is especially important for athletes or people who are trying to lose weight. 

There are two main types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly by the body to be used as energy. Simple carbohydrates are found naturally in fruits, milk, and milk products. They are also found in processed and refined sugars such as candy, table sugar, syrups, and soft drinks.

Complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules that are strung together in long chains. Complex carbohydrates are found in peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. 

Both simple and complex carbohydrates are broken down into glucose in the body and used for energy. 

Glucose is used in the cells of the body and the brain. Any unused glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen for use later.

3 Types of Carbohydrates and Examples

Beyond simple and complex, carbohydrates can be broken down even further into subtypes. 

Simple Carbohydrates  

Simple carbohydrates are composed of one or two sugar molecules called simple sugars. They are quickly digested and absorbed by the body, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels. Simple carbohydrates are often found in foods like fruits, dairy products, and processed sugars.

1. Monosaccharides

Monosaccharides are the simplest form of carbohydrates, consisting of a single sugar molecule. They are the building blocks of more complex carbohydrates and include glucose, fructose, and galactose.

Glucose is the primary source of energy for the body's cells. It is commonly found in fruits, honey, and sweetened beverages.

Fructose is naturally occurring in fruits, vegetables, and honey. It is the sweetest naturally occurring carbohydrate. Naturally occurring fructose is not to be confused with high-fructose corn syrup, which is made through processing and is different than fructose from whole foods.

Galactose is a monosaccharide that is found in milk. It combines with glucose to form lactose.

2. Disaccharides

Disaccharides are composed of two monosaccharide units joined together by a glycosidic bond. They are often found in sweet-tasting foods and beverages.

Sucrose, also known as table sugar, is the result of glucose and fructose joining together. It is commonly found in sugar cane, sugar beets, and many sweetened products.

Lactose is found in milk and dairy products and is formed from glucose and galactose. Some people may have difficulty digesting lactose, leading to lactose intolerance.

Maltose is formed by the combination of two glucose molecules and is found in grains and malted products.

Simple sugars, like those found in fruit, are naturally occurring and are healthier than added sugars. Consuming excessive amounts of added sugar over time can lead to increased blood cholesterol, decreased insulin sensitivity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. 

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are composed of long chains of sugar molecules, which take longer to digest and provide sustained energy. They are found in whole grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables. Even white bread is considered a complex carbohydrate due to its longer chains of sugar molecules. However, because it has been stripped of its fiber, it moves through the digestive system more quickly than whole-grain bread. 

3. Polysaccharides

Polysaccharides – starch, glycogen, and fiber – are large molecules consisting of multiple monosaccharide units linked together. They serve as energy storage molecules in plants and animals, as well as providing structural support.

Starch is a polysaccharide found in grains, legumes, and tubers. It serves as the main energy reserve in plants. It consists of long chains of glucose molecules.

Glycogen is the storage form of glucose in animals. It is primarily stored in the liver and muscles. It can be rapidly broken down into glucose when energy is needed.

Dietary fiber is a complex carbohydrate found in plant-based foods. It promotes digestive health, regulates blood glucose levels, reduces the risk of and aids in weight management. Examples include cellulose, pectin, and lignin.

Incorporating a variety of carbohydrates, particularly complex ones, can offer many health benefits and promote overall well-being.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Read: </strong><a href="fast-digesting-carbs">Fast-Digesting Carbs: What They Are and How They Work</a>.</p>

Carbs and Nutrition

A healthy diet is a balanced diet, and that means one that includes carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are an important part of balanced nutrition and should not be excluded from the diet. 

As you learned above, carbs are present in many different types of foods and can be consumed in ways that align with many different dietary needs and lifestyles. Don’t be afraid of high-carb foods. Many nutritious foods are high in carbohydrates, and they’re a great way to fuel you up. 

The general recommendation for carbohydrate intake is 45-65% of daily calorie intake. Individual carbohydrate needs are dependent upon body size, activity levels, and blood sugar control.

For a person who eats 2000 calories per day, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends around 275 grams of carbohydrates. This recommendation includes dietary fiber, total sugars, and added sugars. 

People with diabetes can benefit from consistent carbohydrate intake throughout the day. This helps keep blood sugar levels stable, preventing highs and lows in blood sugar.

Combining carbohydrates with protein and healthy fats can also prevent blood sugar spikes, increase satiety, and provide longer-lasting energy. 

You can work with a registered dietitian to determine how many carbohydrates you need each day. 

14 Best Healthy Sources of Carbohydrates

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As a dietitian, I try not to label foods as “good and bad,” “healthy or unhealthy,” but some sources of carbohydrates are more nutrient-dense than others. Meaning they provide the body with more fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Complex carbohydrates fall within this nutrient-dense category. 

While there’s nothing wrong with having a piece of candy or a pastry in the context of a balanced diet, it is more beneficial for health to eat complex carbohydrates more often. Here are some of the most common nutrient-dense carbohydrates that will give you the most bang for your buck:

  1. Beans
  2. Lentils 
  3. Dairy products
  4. Fruits
  5. Vegetables
  6. Oatmeal
  7. Cereals
  8. Nuts
  9. Seeds
  10. Whole-wheat bread
  11. Whole-grain products
  12. Brown rice
  13. Quinoa
  14. Barley

Learn More About How to Improve Blood Sugar Health With Signos’ Expert Advice

Understanding how certain foods and lifestyle habits affect your blood sugar levels is key to helping you manage your diabetes or prevent developing the disease down the line. Signos can help arm you with the information you need to optimize your diet, lose weight, and learn about the different medications available to help you live a healthier life

To learn more about glucose levels, check out Signos’ blog. Ready to try CGMs? Take this quick quiz to find out if Signos is right for you.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href="whole-carbs-vs-refined-carbs">Whole Carbs vs. Refined Carbs: Differences Explained</a>.</p>

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References

  1. Nutrition Basics - Carbohydrates. (2023, September 12). American Heart Association. Retrieved February 6, 2024, from https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/carbohydrates
  2. Carbohydrates | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. (n.d.). hsph.harvard.edu. Retrieved February 6, 2024, from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/
  3. Anderson, J. W., Baird, P., Davis, R. H., Jr, Ferreri, S., Knudtson, M., Koraym, A., Waters, V., & Williams, C. L. (2009). Health benefits of dietary fiber. Nutrition reviews, 67(4), 188–205. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2009.00189.x
  4. Puddu, P. E., & Menotti, A. (2021). Simple versus complex carbohydrates and health: A frequently neglected problem. Nutrition, metabolism, and cardiovascular diseases : NMCD, 31(7), 1949–1952. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.numecd.2021.03.001

About the author

Victoria Whittington earned her Bachelor of Science in Food and Nutrition from the University of Alabama and has over 10 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.

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