Carbohydrates are vital for health and serve a variety of important functions for the body. They are naturally found in a variety of foods such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts and grains. In addition, carbohydrates may also be added to various processed foods as sugar. Consult a registered dietitian for a full list of nutrient-dense carbohydrates.
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A typical carbohydrate serving size is approximately 15 grams. The grams refers to the amount of carbohydrates in the serving, not the actual weight of the food. Common examples of a carbohydrate serving include 1 slice of bread, 1 bagel, one-half cup of cooked pasta, 1 cup of raw vegetables or 1 apple. Servings of liquids include 1 cup of skim milk, one-half cup of fruit juice or 12 ounces of beer.
Carbohydrates serve vital functions in energy production and disease prevention. In the body, carbohydrates are broken down into sugars where they are immediately used for energy or stored for later use. The three main types of carbohydrates found in foods include sugars, starch and dietary fiber. Sugar is a carbohydrate in its simplest form and is found naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. Complex carbohydrates such as starch and fiber can be found in many vegetables, grains, legumes and seeds. Carbohydrates that provide fiber may reduce your risk of many diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In addition, dietary fiber also promotes fullness and supports digestive health.
Carbohydrates should make up about 45 to 65 percent of your total calories. For example, if you require 2,000 calories daily, consume roughly 900 to 1,300 calories from carbohydrates. Depending on your exact requirements, that translates to about 60 to 75 grams or four to five servings of carbohydrates with every meal. Specific requirements vary depending on energy needs, gender and activity level. Consult with a registered dietitian for your exact carbohydrate and daily calorie requirements.
The Harvard School of Public Health notes the best carbohydrate sources include nutrient-dense foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes. These foods are abundant in essential vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber. Common examples of whole grains include brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, buckwheat, barley, oats, whole wheat and rye. Focus on fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables that do not have any added sugars. When choosing dairy products, stick to skim or low-fat options that provide many nutrients but fewer calories from saturated fat. Finally, limit refined sugars and highly processed foods such as sugary sodas, candies, pastries, cakes and other sweets.