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The Lowdown on Carbohydrates

We all need some carbohydrate in our diet to remain healthy but the key question is what sort? With a little bit of know how you can pick the foods that contain the carbohydrates that will help manage your weight and keep you fit and active.

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are an important component of the diet because they provide energy for our daily activities. One gram of carbohydrate contains 3.75 calories.

Food contains three main types of carbohydrate:

  • sugars
  • starchy carbohydrates
  • dietary fibre

How does the body use carbohydrates?

Foods containing sugars and starches are digested by the body to produce glucose which is used as energy to power muscles and for essential physiological processes in the body.

Some sugars and starches are broken down more quickly than others causing blood glucose levels to rise rapidly which can be a problem for anyone who is diabetic or pre-diabetic. If too much carbohydrate is eaten it is stored as fat in the body.

Fibre is a complex carbohydrate which is not broken down in the main part of the gut to produce energy instead it is fermented in the colon to make important nutrients. It helps to keep the gut healthy.

Carbohydrates in food

Most foods contain some carbohydrate. Table 1 shows a selection of foods that contain carbohydrate, and lists their sugars, starch and fibre content.

Table 1. Carbohydrate content of selected foods (per 100g) [1]

Food (per 100g) 

Energy value cal 

Carbohydrate (g) 

Sugars (g) 

Starch (g) 

Fibre (g)

Brown rice, boiled

132

29.2

0.1

29.0

1.5

Spaghetti, white, cooked

141

31.5

1.0

30.5

1.7

Spaghetti, wholemeal, cooked

134

27.5

Tr

27.5

4.2

Baked potato (with skin)

 97

 22.6

1.4

 21.2

 2.6

Wholemeal bread

217

42.0

2.8

39.3

7.0

White bread

219

46.1

3.4

42.7

2.5

Lentils, red, cooked

100

17.5

0.8

16.2

2.5

Peas, cooked

79

10.0

1.2

7.6

5.6

Sweetcorn, canned

78

13.9

7.5

6.2

3.1

Banana

81

20.3

18.1

2.2

1.4

Raisins

272

69.3

69.3

0

2.66

Foods that are highly processed can contain a lot of added sugar and highly refined carbohydrates for example, confectionary, soft drinks, cakes, biscuits, desserts, sauces and ready meals.

Are carbohydrates bad for health?

The type of carbohydrate you eat can affect health in several ways. There is an established link between the frequency of consuming sugar in the diet and dental caries. Diets that contain a lot of sugar and refined carbohydrates can lead to excess energy consumption and obesity.

What are the best types of carbohydrate foods to eat?

Most natural, unprocessed foods contain some carbohydrate and the best ones to include in your diet are wholegrains and cereals such as oats, brown rice, nuts, seeds, pulses, vegetables and fruit.

These foods also contain a range of other nutrients including, protein, iron, B vitamins, fibre, essential fatty acids and calcium which are also important for our health.

How much carbohydrate should I eat?

About half of the energy in your diet should come from starchy carbohydrates contained in wholegrain foods, fruit, nuts, seeds, pulses and vegetables.

Adults in the UK need about 1,800 calories per day to maintain their weight. Therefore, the diet needs to provide approximately 900 calories, or 240g, of carbohydrate, daily.

Are low carbohydrate diets safe?

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. Without carbohydrates in the diet the body will use stored fat and protein from muscles for energy which can lead to a dangerous metabolic state known as ketosis. Ketosis can be linked, at least in the short term, to headaches, weakness, nausea, dehydration, dizziness and irritability.

Dramatically cutting the carbohydrates from your diet can put you at risk of a deficiency of certain nutrients and led to problems with the gut due to low fibre intake.

Replacing carbohydrates with fats and foods containing protein and fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood – a risk factor for heart disease.

Carbohydrates and weight loss

If you are trying to lose weight reducing the amount of sugar and highly refined carbohydrate in your diet will decrease your energy intake and can help you to lose weight. Remember to eat a variety of nutrient rich foods which contain a mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat to ensure that your diet provides you with all the nutrients you need.

[1] Source: British Nutrition Society.

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