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What Carbohydrates Do To Your Body

Written by Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity on 12 March 2012.

There’s lots of information out there these days about nutrition and health, and some of it can be very confusing!  One nutrition topic that has gotten a lot of attention lately is carbohydrates, or “carbs.”  It seems that every time we turn around, some has developed a new weight loss program that focuses on cutting or increasing carbs. But what are carbohydrates, and why are they so important to us?


 Carbohydrates are one of three sources of energy or “calories” for our bodies, the others being fats and protein.  Think of calories the same way you would gasoline for your car. Carbohydrates are the most important source because it is the source that is used by the brain and is used when energy is needed by the body quickly.  The carbohydrates we eat go into our blood system as what we often call “blood sugar.” Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, is responsible for making sure our blood sugar doesn’t get too high.  Another hormone, glucagon, works to make sure our blood sugar doesn’t get too low, so insulin and glucagon work as a team.  When the insulin in our bodies is not working properly, or when our pancreas stops making insulin, that can lead to problems like diabetes. 

Where do we get carbohydrates
in our diet?

The two major types of carbohydrates in our diets that give us energy are sugars and starches.  The sugars are the “sweet” foods that contain sucrose (table sugar) or fructose (such as corn syrups).  Starches are found in foods such as rice, pasta, breads, corn, and cereals.  Starches are not as sweet as sugars, but do provide carbohydrates and calories to the diet.  A third type of carbohydrate, dietary fiber, is not used as energy in our body because they cannot be digested, but does play a very important role in keeping our digestive system working properly.  They can also affect our blood sugar by slowing down how fast the starches and sugars we eat go into our blood.  Good sources of dietary fiber include whole-grain breads, cereals and pasta; oatmeal; peas and beans; vegetables such as carrots, cauliflower, broccoli; and fruits such as prunes, apples and pears (especially with the skin).

You can read food labels to determine how many grams of carbohydrates are in a serving of a food.  The nutrition content section of the label will tell you how many of the grams are from dietary fiber and sugars.  The total carbohydrates in a food is the total amount of sugars, starches (which are not listed separately on food labels), and dietary fiber (which do not give us energy) that are in that food.  You can also look at the ingredients in a food label to see what types of sugars are in a food.  Look for words like “high fructose corn syrup,” “dextrose,” and “sucrose.”

A lot of weight-loss diets these days are focusing on the sugar and starch content of the foods we eat.  Diets such as the Atkins diet recommend eating very few carbohydrates.  Of particular interest with these diet strategies is limiting foods with a high “glycemic index.”  These are foods that are high in carbohydrates and low in fiber and protein such as white bread and sweets that cause your blood to increase rapidly.  Some research has shown that eating a lot of high glycemic index foods can lead to obesity and Type 2 diabetes.  The down side of these diets is that they are generally high in fat and are low in fiber, which can cause some other health problems.  They are also difficult for many people to stick with, so many people that start on these diets and lose weight quickly often fall off the wagon and gain the weight right back.

There is much more research that needs to be done on the overall health effects of the different types of weight loss approaches that are on the market. However, a very good strategy is to make sure that, if weight is a problem, to limit the total number of calories that you eat, including sugars and starches as well as fat and saturated fat.  Also, if you have a chronic health condition like diabetes, you especially need to make sure that you follow your health care provider’s advice on the amounts and types of carbohydrates you are eating and how that affects your condition.  Reading food labels when you go to the grocery store and being more aware of the calories and carbohydrates in the foods you eat when you go to a restaurant are excellent strategies to understanding your overall diet.

For more information, contact the American Dietetic Association ( or the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Information Center (

Do you need further information or have questions or comments about this article? Please call toll-free 1-877-530-1824. Or, for more information about the Maya Angelou Center for Health Equity please visit our website:  •

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