Carbohydrates are found in the sugar, starch and fiber food categories. They typically have a negative connotation due to their association with weight gain; however, the body requires carbohydrates for energy and for proper functioning of the digestive system. To obtain the nutritional benefits of carbohydrates while maintaining a healthy weight and overall good health, consumers should choose certain types of carbohydrates.
Complex vs. Simple
Simple carbohydrates are composed of single and double sugar molecules, such as fructose, lactose and sucrose. Complex, or good, carbohydrates have three or more sugar molecules in a compound, consisting primarily of starch. The body digests simple carbohydrates, like candy, soda and refined grains, much faster than complex carbohydrates, like beans, potatoes and whole grains.
The faster digestion of simple carbohydrates sometimes leads to dangerous spikes in blood sugar as well as increased eating and weight gain due to quicker stomach emptying. Also, simple carbohydrates generally lack the fiber and vitamins found in complex carbohydrates, according to the American Heart Association.
Fruits have a considerable amount of simple sugar; however, they are a source of good carbohydrates because of their significant fiber, vitamin and mineral content. Consumers who want to obtain all the nutritional benefits of fruit carbohydrates but want to limit their sugar intake should choose berries, papaya, nectarines, apples and apricots.
Vegetables and Beans
Vegetables typically have more starch than simple carbohydrates. However, the body breaks down starch to glucose like other simple sugars, so excess consumption of starchy vegetables, like potatoes, can lead to weight gain as well. Leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus and green beans are good sources of complex, low-starch carbohydrates. While beans contain significant amounts of starch, they are also very high in fiber and protein. Darker beans, such as black and pinto, are generally regarded as healthier options.
Grain carbohydrates include wheat, rice, barley, corn and oats, which are referred to as whole when left in their natural state. Whole grains consist of all their layers containing their associated nutritional benefits, such as fiber, iron and B vitamins.
When processed, whole grains lose their nutritive layers and are referred to as refined, or white, grains. Refined grains, such as white bread, rice and pasta, have high amounts of simple carbohydrates. Consumers should choose whole grain breads, brown rice, oatmeal and whole grain pasta as their primary sources of grain carbohydrates.
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