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Publication #FSHN14-03

Facts about Carbohydrate1

Nancy J. Gal, Amanda L. Ford, and Wendy J. Dahl2

Why do we need carbohydrate?

Carbohydrate, fat, and protein are the three nutrients that provide energy (calories). However, carbohydrate from starch and sugars is our main and most important source of energy. During digestion, starch is broken down to sugar (glucose). Carbohydrate in the form of glucose provides energy to cells, tissues, and organs to carry out daily activities. Some glucose is stored in the liver and muscle cells for later use when required. Children need carbohydrate for growth, and adults need carbohydrate to maintain their weight.

How much carbohydrate do we need?

The Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrate is 130 grams per day for everyone over the age of one year (IOM 2005). This is the amount of glucose needed for optimum brain and nervous system function. Since the carbohydrates (starch and sugar) in our food provide 4 calories of energy per gram, this is equivalent to a minimum of 520 calories from carbohydrate each day.

It is recommended that we consume 45% to 65% of our total energy intake (in calories) from carbohydrate (IOM 2005). Because carbohydrate provides 4 calories per gram, we can figure out how many grams of carbohydrate we need. For example, if our daily energy need is 2000 calories, it would be recommended that we consume 225 to 325 grams of carbohydrate per day:

2000 calories x 45% = 900 calories; 900 calories divided by 4 calories/g = 225 g

2000 calories x 65% = 1300 calories; 1300 calories divided by 4 calories/g = 325 g

What happens if we don’t get enough carbohydrate?

As many foods contain carbohydrates, most people get enough. However, low carbohydrate diets may restrict carbohydrate intake to below the requirement (ADA 2009). At very low intakes (< 20 g/day), the body will break down fat to use as fuel. This process produces ketones to provide energy to the brain, muscles, and other organs. Low carbohydrate diets may be effective for weight loss, but they can be unhealthy and risky for some individuals with certain health conditions (ADA 2009). Consult your health care provider before starting a low-carbohydrate diet.

What are the sources of carbohydrate in our diet?

Carbohydrate is abundant in our diet. Grains, fruit, milk, legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), and many vegetables contain carbohydrate. Table 1 gives some examples of the carbohydrate content of common foods.

Most nuts contain very little carbohydrate, and eggs, cheese,fresh meat, poultry, and seafood contain virtually no carbohydrate. However, processed foods often have added starch and sugars (e.g., breaded meat patties). It is important to note that the carbohydrate content of a food is equal to the total starch, sugars, and fiber in a food.

The carbohydrate content of packaged food is shown on the Nutrition Facts label. An example of a Nutrition Facts label is shown in Figure 1. Total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, and sugars are presented in grams per serving and as a percentage of the Daily Value. The Daily Value is the value set for a nutrient specifically for food labels and is based on a 2000 calorie diet. In this example (Figure1), one serving of the food contains 11 g of total carbohydrate, 3 g of dietary fiber, and 1 g of sugars. The difference of 7 g is the amount of starch per serving. The food provides 4% of the Daily Value, which is 4% of 275 g of carbohydrate per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet (275 is the average of the 225 to 325 range described above).

Figure 1. 

Nutrition Facts label.


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

What happens if we eat too much carbohydrate?

There is no upper limit for carbohydrate intake. The amount we should eat depends on our energy needs. For example, athletes and people who have physically demanding jobs may need high intakes to help meet their energy needs. Excessive carbohydrate intake may lead to weight gain. Fat, protein, and alcohol also provide calories. Consuming more calories than we need from any combination of carbohydrate, fat, protein, and alcohol will lead to weight gain.

It is recommended that we limit the intake of foods that contain added sugar, particularly sweetened beverages. Instead, choose foods containing naturally occurring starch and sugars (USDA 2010). Added sugars can be identified by reading the ingredient list on the food label. Examples of added sugars are dextrose, lactose, brown sugar, malt syrup, maltose, corn syrup, molasses, nectars, fructose, honey, raw sugar, sucrose, invert sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup.

Added sugars have many important functions in foods, and it is not necessary to avoid all added sugars. They influence the texture, flavor, and color of baked goods. Sugars support the growth of yeast for leavening and fermentation. They contribute volume in ice cream, baked goods, and jams, and enhance the creamy consistency of frozen desserts. Added sugars also help to maintain the natural color, texture, and shape of preserved fruits.

Summary

Carbohydrate is an important nutrient for good health. Choosing whole grains, fruits, root vegetables, legumes, and low-fat dairy products is a healthful way of meeting carbohydrate needs.

Where Can I Find More Information?

For more information on high fructose corn syrup, see Facts about Fructose at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/FS/FS14800.pdf.

Registered dietitians may be able to provide you with more information about choosing a healthy diet. To find a registered dietitian (RD) in your area, you can visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics RD Finder at http://www.eatright.org/programs/rdfinder/.

The Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) agent at your county Extension office may have more information about food and nutrition, and may also have classes for you to attend.

References

American Dietetic Association. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: Weight Management. Journal of the American Dietetic Association;109:330-346.

Institute of Medicine, Food and Nutrition Board (2005) Dietary Reference Intakes for energy, carbohydrate, fiber, fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, protein, and amino acids, pp. 339-421. The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2013. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 26. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page, http://www.ars.usda.gov/ba/bhnrc/ndl.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. 7th Edition, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, January 2010.

Tables

Table 1. 

Carbohydrate contents of common foods (USDA 2013).

Food

Carbohydrate

(g/serving)

Grains

 

Bagel, 1/2 of 4-inch bagel

33

Bread, wheat (1 slice)

14

Cereal, Raisin Bran (1 cup)

46

Cereal, Cheerios (1 cup)

21

Oatmeal, instant (1 packet)

28

Crackers, club, multigrain (4 crackers)

9

Vegetables

 

Potato, russet, baked (medium)

37

Sweet potato, cooked, baked (medium)

24

Carrots, raw (1 medium)

6

Beans, green, snap, boiled (1/2 cup)

5

Fruit

 

Apple, raw, with skin (medium)

23

Grapes, red or green, seedless (1 cup)

27

Banana (1 medium)

27

Legumes

 

Beans, black, boiled (1/2 cup)

20

Lentils, green, boiled (1/2 cup)

20

Dairy

 

Milk, low-fat, 1% (1 cup)

12

Yogurt, fruit variety, non-fat (6 oz.)

32

Yogurt, greek, plain, non-fat (6 oz.)

6

Nuts

 

Pecans (1 oz.)

4

Almonds (1 oz.)

< 1

Footnotes

1.

This document is FSHN14-03, one of a series of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date February 2014. Visit the EDIS website at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu.

2.

Nancy Gal, Extension agent IV, Food and Consumer Sciences, UF/IFAS Marion County Extension Service, Ocala, FL; Amanda Ford, PhD student; and Wendy J. Dahl, PhD, RD, assistant professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition Department; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.