Cookies on the Bupa website

We use cookies to help us understand ease of use and relevance of content. This ensures that we can give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive cookies for this purpose. Find out more about cookies




Carbohydrates have gained a bad reputation in recent years. Say the word ‘carbs’ and for many people, stodgy food and weight gain spring to mind. But in reality, your body wouldn’t be able to function without carbohydrates. What's important, is to eat the right type and amount of carbs.


  • Types of carbohydrate Types of carbohydrate

    Carbohydrates are compounds that your body needs for energy. When you eat foods that contain carbohydrates, your body converts them into glucose (sugar), which your body uses for fuel.

    There are different types of carbohydrate, they aren't all the same.

    • Sugar. Sugars are found naturally in some foods, such as fruit, honey and vegetables. Processed sugar is added to foods such as biscuits and soft drinks during their manufacture. 
    • Starch. Starches are made up of a number – sometimes hundreds – of sugar molecules joined together. They are found in bread, pasta and rice, as well as some fruits and vegetables. 
    • Fibre is also classed as a carbohydrate. However, unlike other types of carbohydrate, your body doesn't use it for energy; it helps to keep your bowel active and healthy.

    Carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy. You use them to fuel activity in your muscles and also to keep your brain and other organs working properly.

  • Why do carbohydrates have a bad reputation? Why do carbohydrates have a bad reputation?

    Say the word ‘carbohydrates’ and many people will immediately think negatively. Carbohydrates have been blamed for feeling tired, bloated and a perceived heaviness. It's also a common misconception that carbohydrates are fattening. Some diet plans, such as the paleo diet (also known as the caveman diet) and the Atkins diet are based on reducing the amount of carbohydrate you eat.

    It's not unusual to think of cakes and stodgy food when carbohydrates are mentioned but remember carbohydrates aren't all the same. Low-carb diets often don’t leave room for fruit, vegetables and whole grains, which contain carbohydrates and are essential components of a balanced diet. It's the sugar type of carbohydrate, found in biscuits and fizzy drinks and the like that gives you a sugar rush and is the main problem. Your body processes such sugars very quickly so they don't sustain your energy levels. And we know we should all be eating less of them. See ‘What is the glycaemic index?’ for more information on how quickly carbohydrates are broken down.

    Carbohydrates do contain calories but fewer than half the number that are in fat. Of course, as with lots of things, it’s not good to have too much carbohydrate. If you eat more carbohydrate than your body can burn off as energy, the excess will be converted to fat. But carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet.

    Rather than eliminate carbohydrates from your diet, the key thing is to eat the right type of carbohydrate because some are healthier than others.

    Bupa Health Assessments

    If you are concerned about your health, Bupa can help you get a diagnosis.

  • Good carbs bad carbs Good carbs bad carbs

    Good carbs

    'Good' carbohydrates are the wholegrain varieties of starchy carbohydrates. High-fibre, starchy carbs release sugar into your blood more slowly than sugary foods and drinks. This makes them an important source of energy. See ‘What is the glycaemic index?’ below for information on how quickly different carbohydrates release sugar.

    Wholegrains contain a host of important nutrients that may reduce your risk of heart disease and some types of cancer. When grains are processed 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 good for you as the wholegrain varieties.

    Wholegrains are also more likely to keep you feeling fuller for longer. This is because they contain more fibre and generally take longer to digest than foods that have been processed.. This can help to control your appetite and help you to maintain a healthy weight.

    Bad carbs

    Sugar is often referred to as a 'bad' carbohydrate. Sugary foods and drinks contribute to your energy intake but have little other value. Not only that, they are often very energy dense, which means they pack a lot of calories into a small volume. Some of these foods also contain a lot of fat but not many other useful nutrients. The calories they contain are often called ‘empty calories’ because of the lack of nutrients. Even if you eat just a small amount of sugary foods and drinks, they can push up your calorie intake remarkably quickly. In fact, sugary drinks are the main reason many of us consume too many empty calories.

    It’s best to limit your intake of 'bad' sugar carbohydrates and stick to 'good' starchy foods. But remember to include some fruit in your diet because it has other important nutrients, such as vitamins.

  • An overview of your health

    Find out how a Bupa health assessment can help you understand your health, identify future health risks, and offer practical advice for a healthier you.

  • How much carbohydrate do I need? How much carbohydrate do I need?

    At least half the energy in your diet should come from carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain starchy carbohydrates. So include things like wholemeal bread, brown pasta and rice, as well as some fruits and vegetables. Most of us are already eating enough carbohydrate, but often of the wrong type. Too many calories come from sugary products and not enough from wholegrain, starchy foods.

    If you don't eat enough carbohydrate, you may have low blood-sugar levels; this is called hypoglycaemia. This condition will make you feel weak and light-headed. Because your brain needs fuel from carbohydrates, you might also have difficulty concentrating. However, hypoglycaemia mainly affects people who have diabetes, as well as very active sports people.

    Aim to make starchy foods about a third of your diet. The easiest way to do this it to try to include wholegrain starchy foods in every meal.

  • Eat the right carbohydrates – food swaps Eat the right carbohydrates – food swaps

    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.
  • Glycaemic index Glycaemic index

    GI index by Bupa UKThe glycaemic index (GI) of a food is a measure of how quickly the glucose in it is released into your bloodstream after eating. 

    Click on the image to open our infographic of the glycaemic index.








  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Carbohydrate. British Nutrition Foundation., published 2009
    • Carbohydrates: good carbs guide the way. Harvard School of Public Health., 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., published May 2012
    • Carbohydrates. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention., published 4 October 2011
    • Sugars. Food Standards Agency., accessed 31 July 2012
    • Carbohydrates. American Diabetes Association., 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., accessed 31 July 2012
  • Has our information helped you? Tell us what you think about this page

    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
  • Related information Related information

  • Tools and calculators Tools and calculators

  • Author information Author information

    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 Standard

    We are certified by the Information Standard. This quality mark identifies reliable, trustworthy producers and sources of health information.
    Information standard logo
  • HONcode

    This website is certified by Health On the Net Foundation. Click to verify. This site complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information:
    verify here.

  • Plain English Campaign

    We hold the Crystal Mark, which is the seal of approval from the Plain English Campaign for clear and concise information.
    Plain English Campaign logo

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.

An image showing or editorial principals

                  Click to open full-size image

The ‘3Rs’ encompass everything we believe good health information should be. From tweets to in-depth reports, videos to quizzes, every piece of content we produce has these as its foundation.


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.

Our accreditation

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. Bupa shall hold responsibility for the accuracy of the information they publish and neither the Scheme Operator nor the Scheme Owner shall have any responsibility whatsoever for costs, losses or direct or indirect damages or costs arising from inaccuracy of information or omissions in information published on the website on behalf of Bupa.

  • HONcode

    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.

Contact us

If you have any feedback on our health information, we would love to hear from you. Please contact us via email: Or you can write to us:

Health Content Team
Bupa House
15-19 Bloomsbury Way

Find out more Close

Legal disclaimer

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Such third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the 'About our health information' section.

^ Calls may be recorded and may be monitored.