Proper nutrition means meeting your daily calorie needs and providing your body with nutrients needed to stay healthy and active. That may sound simple, but nutrition can be a confusing maze of scientific jargon and theory. To help you better understand the link between eating and good health, let take a closer look at one of the key building blocks of good nutrition—carbohydrates.

Carbohydrate Basics

There’s a shroud of mystery attached to carbohydrates and how food is converted to energy. And lately, some diets have even given carbohydrates a bad name. Here are just a few facts about carbohydrates that may clear things up.

Complex carbohydrates are best: Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet and provide the body with the fuel it needs for physical activity and for proper organ function. There are two types of carbohydrates—complex and simple. Complex carbohydrates come naturally from fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils, peas) and whole grains. Simple carbohydrates come from sugars, which are typically processed and contain no significant nutrients.

Carbohydrates are the best form of energy: The energy from food comes in three forms: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Some of these fuels are stored in your body so that muscles and organs can use them as an immediate source of energy. Out of these three fuels, carbohydrates are the most important, yet least abundant nutrient for daily energy needs. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source for most activity and are burned more efficiently than protein or fat. For example, research has shown that the energy from carbohydrates can be released up to three times as fast as the energy from fat.

There are other important functions and facts you should know about carbohydrates:

  • Carbohydrates are the most effective fuel for a healthy brain and nervous system.
  • Low carbohydrate stores may diminish your concentration.
  • Adequate amounts of carbohydrates help spare protein reserves needed for muscle growth, maintenance and repair.
  • Carbohydrates help the body burn fat more efficiently than protein.
  • Many foods high in complex carbohydrates (such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables) are also high in dietary fiber for better digestion, and prevention of certain types of cancer.

Carbohydrate Stores are limited: The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide energy, but the body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrate (about half a day’s supply of energy). For this reason, it is best not to limit or eliminate all carbohydrates as some popular diets lead us to believe. Eating some complex carbohydrates throughout the day will provide you with an adequate amount of energy for day to day needs.

Carbohydrates in Your Diet

You’ve probably heard of “carbo-loading,” but that’s a term used for endurance athletes that pile on carbohydrates to have enough energy and fuel for long events. For the average person, it’s simple to include complex carbohydrates in your diet.

  • According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines, the average person’s diet should be comprised of 45 to 65 percent of daily caloric intake from carbohydrates.
  • For example, a moderately active adult who needs 2,000 calories per day to sustain their body weight should eat nearly 900-1300 calories from carbohydrates (or 225-325 grams of carbohydrates) per day.
  • Choose healthy complex carbohydrates like brown rice, whole grain pastas, breads, and cereals, fruits, vegetables and legumes. Eating these foods is an excellent way to ensure adequate carbohydrate stores in the body for daily needs.

Note: please consult with your medical professional for heart disease screening and a registered dietician for specific dietary recommendations.