The body derives energy from carbohydrate-rich foods by breaking them down into glucose (blood sugar) to use for fuel. Ideally, 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from healthy, carbohydrate-rich foods. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that is 900 to 1,300 calories from carbohydrates (or 225 to 325 grams). In addition to providing energy, carbohydrate-rich foods provide dozens of vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber and phytonutrients (chemical nutrients found in plant foods).
Complex and Simple Carbohydrates
Every plant-based food provides carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple, which are quickly broken down and absorbed by the body, and complex, which the body must break down into simple sugars for energy. Simple carbohydrates include sugars found naturally in fruits, dairy products and sweets. Complex carbohydrates, which come from starches such as breads, cereals, pasta and beans, provide a more gradual energy release. The ideal diet is heavy in complex carbohydrates. Choosing the healthiest carbohydrates can make a big difference in your overall health and energy level.
Starches and Grains: Carbohydrate-rich Powerhouses
Starch, a complex carbohydrate, is found only in plant foods. Rich sources of starch are whole grains (including cereal grains, wheat, corn, rice, rye, oats and barley), root vegetables, dried beans and peas. These foods provide dozens of vitamins, minerals, fiber and some protein. They offer “timed-release” energy. Examples of one serving of starch include a 1-oz. slice of whole grain bread, 1-oz. ready-to-eat cereal (about 1 cup), or 1/2 cup cooked rice, cereal or pasta. One serving of each of these foods provides approximately 15 grams of carbohydrate. Depending upon your energy needs, nutrition guidelines recommend consuming at least 6 oz. of grains daily, half of which should come from fiber-rich whole grains.
Vegetables: A Source of Energizing Carbohydrates
Vegetables, another great source of complex carbohydrates, are also rich in nutrients and dietary fiber and low in calories. Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and peas, provide the same amount of carbohydrate as starches (about 15 grams per serving). Non-starchy vegetables, such as green beans, leafy greens and carrots, provide fewer carbohydrates per serving (about 5 grams) but are essential for good health. All vegetables can and should be eaten liberally. Current nutrition guidelines recommend about 2 1/2 cups daily.
A Simple Choice: Fruits, Dairy Products and Sweets
Foods rich in complex carbohydrates are generally healthier. The exceptions to this rule are fruits and milk products. All fruits are carbohydrate-rich. Choose whole fruits (skin on) most often. Dried fruits can be a good choice, but, because they are dehydrated, the recommended serving-size is smaller. Real fruit juice (100 percent fruit) provides many of the nutrients of whole fruit but no dietary fiber. Generally, the less processed the fruit, the better. One serving (or one piece of fruit) provides about 15 grams of carbohydrate. Nutrition guidelines recommend eating about 2 cups of fruit daily. Dairy products, such as yogurt and milk, offer a mix of carbohydrate and protein as well as many essential minerals, such as calcium. One cup of milk or yogurt provides approximately 12 grams of carbohydrate. Consume 2 to 3 cups daily but beware of those with added sugars.
Foods that contain added sugars, such as soft drinks, candy, baked goods, fruit drinks and dairy-based desserts, provide a great deal of simple carbohydrates (sugar) and energy. But that is all. They offer few nutrients and should be consumed in limited quantities. Often referred to as a “sugar rush,” the energy these foods offer is quick but short-lasting.