Carbohydrates are compounds that your body uses for energy. They are found in almost every type of food you eat – albeit in different forms and amounts. All carbohydrates are made up of individual ‘building blocks’ or sugar molecules. The most basic carbohydrates – such as the sugar you put in your tea, or that gives your apple its sweet taste – consist of just one or two of these molecules.
Other more complex (or ‘starchy’) carbohydrates are made up of a number – sometimes hundreds – of sugar molecules joined together. These are the types of carbohydrate found in bread, pasta and rice, as well as some types of fruit and vegetables.
Fibre is also classed as a carbohydrate. However, unlike other types of carbohydrate, it isn’t usually used by your body for energy but has a number of other important functions.
Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy. You use them as fuel, not only to help you walk or run, but also to keep your heart, lungs and other vital organs working properly.
When you eat any type of carbohydrate, your digestive system will break it down into simple sugars, such as glucose – the main form of fuel for your body. Glucose is then circulated in your blood to every cell in your body.
If you don’t have enough carbohydrate in your diet, your body will start to break down fat and then protein to get the glucose it needs. Protein is important for your body to be able to grow and repair itself, so using it as an energy source means there will be little left to carry out these vital functions. If you eat enough carbohydrate, you can prevent this.
There has been much misconception in recent times that carbohydrates are fattening. Of course, as with many things, it’s not good to have too much. If you eat more carbohydrate than your body can burn off as energy, your body’s glucose stores will become saturated and the excess will be converted to fat. In other words, you will start to put on weight. But carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet. The key thing is to pick the right type of carbohydrates as some types are healthier than others.
Foods and drinks that are high in sugar are a major cause of tooth decay. Sugary foods, such as cakes and biscuits also tend to be high in fat, but they often don’t contain many other useful nutrients – hence the term, ‘empty calories’. They contribute to your energy intake but have little other value. Not only that, sugary foods are often very energy dense, which means they pack a lot of calories into a small volume. Even if you eat just small amounts of these foods, they can push up your calorie intake. It’s therefore best to limit your intake of sugary foods and stick to starchy foods.
Wholegrains for health
In general, the best starchy carbohydrates to go for are wholegrain foods – including wholegrain varieties of breads, pasta and cereal. Wholegrains contain a host of important nutrients that are thought to reduce your risk of heart disease and bowel cancer. When grains are processed (or ‘refined’) to make them look whiter, the part of the grain that contains fibre and many useful nutrients is removed. This means that white bread, pasta and cereals aren’t as beneficial to your health.
Wholegrains are also more likely to keep you feeling fuller for longer – as they generally take longer to digest than foods that have been processed and contain more fibre. This can help to control your appetite and help you to maintain a healthy weight.
It’s thought that at least half the energy in your diet should come from carbohydrates. Many people are already eating enough, but it’s often the wrong type – with too much coming from sugary or refined products and not enough from wholegrain, starchy foods. Starchy foods should make up about a third of your diet. The easiest way to do this it to try to include some at every meal – and opt for wholegrains when possible.
Although it’s best to limit the sugar in your diet, this doesn’t mean cutting out fruit. The natural sugars in fruit are not as bad for your teeth as those in sugary foods and drinks, as they are held inside the cells of the fruit and only released when you chew the fruit, or if the fruit is juiced or blended as in fruit juices and smoothies. If you drink these, try to stick to one a day and drink them with a meal to reduce your risk of tooth decay.
Most people aren’t eating enough starchy foods. Here are some tips on how you can get good carbohydrate into your diet.
- Cut down on refined carbohydrates if you can, swap your white bread, pasta and rice for wholemeal or wholegrain and granary versions. Also, leave the skin on potatoes when you boil them or try some homemade potatoes wedges with the skins left on.
- Variety is the spice of life – try a bagel or tortilla wrap or wholemeal pitta as alternatives to bread. Sweet potatoes and yams make a change from plain old potatoes.
- To get some great sources of starch and fibre in your diet, add beans and lentils to stews, casseroles and curries. You won’t need to use as much meat, so your meal will be lower in saturated fat too.
Click to open full-size image (1.2MB)
- Carbohydrate. British Nutrition Foundation. www.nutrition.org.uk, published 2009
- Carbohydrates: good carbs guide the way. Harvard School of Public Health. www.hsph.harvard.edu, accessed 31 July 2012
- Ooi CP, Loke SC, Yassin Z, et al. Carbohydrates for improving the cognitive performance of independent-living older adults with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2011, Issue 4. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD007220.pub2
- About carbohydrate. Diabetes UK. www.diabetes.org.uk, published May 2012
- Carbohydrates. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov, published 4 October 2011
- Sugars. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 31 July 2012
- Carbohydrates. American Diabetes Association. www.diabetes.org, accessed 31 July 2012
- Masters B, Aarabi S, Sidhwa F, et al. High-carbohydrate, high-protein, low-fat versus low-carbohydrate, high-protein, high-fat enteral feeds for burns. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 1. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006122.pub3
- Starchy foods. Food Standards Agency. www.eatwellscotland.org, accessed 31 July 2012
We’d love to know what you think about what you’ve just been reading and looking at – we’ll use it to improve our information. If you’d like to give us some feedback, our short form below will take just a few minutes to complete. And if there's a question you want to ask that hasn't been answered here, please submit it to us. Although we can't respond to specific questions directly, we’ll aim to include the answer to it when we next review this topic.
Let us know what you think using our short feedback form Ask us a question
Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, September 2012.
Let us know what you think using our short feedback form Ask us a question
About our health information
At Bupa we produce a wealth of free health information for you and your family. We believe that trustworthy information is essential in helping you make better decisions about your health and care. Here are just a few of the ways in which our core editorial principles have been recognised.
Information StandardWe are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
Plain English CampaignWe hold the Crystal Mark, which is the seal of approval from the Plain English Campaign for clear and concise information.
What our readers say about us
But don't just take our word for it; here's some feedback from our readers.
“Simple and easy to use website - not alarming, just helpful.”
“It’s informative but not too detailed. I like that it’s factual and realistic about the conditions and the procedures involved. It’s also easy to navigate to areas that you specifically want without having to read all the information.”
“Good information, easy to find, trustworthy.”
Our core principles
All our health content is produced in line with our core editorial principles – readable, reliable, relevant – which are represented by our diagram.
In a nutshell, our information is jargon-free, concise and accessible. We know our audience and we meet their health information needs, helping them to take the next step in their health and wellbeing journey.
We use the best quality and most up-to-date evidence to produce our information. Our process is transparent and validated by experts – both our users and medical specialists.
We know that our users want the right information at the right time, in the way that suits them. So we review our content at least every three years to keep it fresh. And we’re embracing new technology and social media so they can get it whenever and wherever they choose.
Here are just a few of the ways in which the quality of our information has been recognised.
The Information Standard certification scheme
You will see the Information Standard quality mark on our content. This is a certification programme, supported by NHS England, that was developed to ensure that public-facing health and care information is created to a set of best practice principles.
It uses only recognised evidence sources and presents the information in a clear and balanced way. The Information Standard quality mark is a quick and easy way for you to identify reliable and trustworthy producers and sources of information.
Certified by the Information Standard as a quality provider of health and social care information.
We comply with the HONcode (Health on the Net) for trustworthy health information. Certified by the HONcode for trustworthy health information.
Plain English Campaign
Our website is approved by the Plain English Campaign and carries their Crystal Mark for clear information. In 2010, we won the award for best website.
Website approved by Plain English Campaign.
British Medical Association (BMA) patient information awards
We have received a number of BMA awards for different assets over the years. Most recently, in 2013, we received a 'commended' award for our online shared decision making hub.
If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can write to us:
Health Content Team
15-19 Bloomsbury Way