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Fact File - Carbohydrates (Carbs)

We often refer to starchy foods, such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes as carbohydrates; starch is the most common form of carb however there are other types of carbohydrates in our diet. This fact file will help you understand the different types of carbs, why they are important, and the type we should be aiming to consume for a healthy, balanced diet.



Why do we need carbohydrates in our diet?

Carbs are our main source of energy and are broken down to glucose (a sugar) by digestion and travel to our bloodstream. Glucose then travels to the cells of our body to fuel them. This is what provides us with our main source of energy, particularly for the brain and muscles. Different types of carbs will release energy at different rates. If we didn’t have carbs in the diet, we would need to produce energy from other macronutrients (protein and fat), but these are not efficient sources of energy and it is not healthy for the body to rely only on these for energy in the long-term.


Are carbs fattening?

There is often much negativity regarding carbs and body weight. The truth is, carbs themselves are not fattening, but any macronutrient, whether it is a carb, protein or fat consumed in greater excesses than is burnt (used by the body and brain) as energy, weight gain will occur and unused energy (calories) will be stored as fat for long-term energy reserves. Carbs and protein both have roughly the same number of calories per gram whilst fat has over double the number of calories per gram.


Types Of Carbs

There are three types, which are discussed below:

Sugar – They are either naturally found in foods, particularly fruit and milk or are added to foods and drinks. Natural sugars found in fruit are less likely to cause tooth decay because the sugars are contained within the structure of the fruit, unless juiced or blended. Added sugar is usually found in highly processed foods and drinks such as sweets, cakes and fizzy drinks which often are just high in calories with little other nutritive value, unlike fruit and milk which have naturally occurring sugars. Sugar is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream.

Starches – More complex than sugar and found in foods sourced from plants. Starch is the most common carb and it can be refined, such as, white bread and white pasta or as a high fibre variety, such as whole grain bread and wholemeal pasta. The higher the fibre content, the more slowly the energy is released into the bloodstream.

Fibre – The most complex of carbs, and is found not only in high fibre starchy foods, but also in vegetables, fruit, pulses and grains. Some fibre does not digest which helps waste products and foods move more easily through the gut.


How many carbs do we need in our diet?

It is recommended that adults should not have more than 30g of added or free sugars a day (about 7 sugar cubes), this equates to no more than 5% of our daily calorie intake, the less added sugar you have, the better. This does not include natural sugars found in milk and fruit.  Starchy foods should make up about one third of our diet and one third should be from vegetable sources which include fruit and pulses. For starchy foods, the key is to include high fibre varieties rather than refined. Many people don't get enough fibre. On average, most people in the UK get about 18g of fibre a day. We are advised to eat an average of 30g a day.


Low Carb Diets

These diets often hit the media with celebrities claiming health benefits such as weight loss. It is actually very hard to exclude carbs in the diet as they are found in so many foods naturally. In the absence of carbs, the body will use protein and fat as energy, these are not efficient sources of energy. Using fat as energy will eventually cause a build-up of chemicals in the blood, called ketones. High levels of ketones can result in feeling weak, headaches, dizziness and irritability.

Because carbs are found in so many foods, cutting out carbs can put one at risk of low levels of essential nutrients, such as B vitamins, zinc and iron. Fibre also has a number of health benefits. However limiting added sugars, mainly found in processed foods, can provide health benefits as too much sugar is linked with weight gain.


Healthier Carb Choices

Starchy foods and fibre should be our main carb choices, they provide energy and can be a rich source of vitamins and minerals and fibre has an important role in gut health as well as other health benefits. Foods that are starchy and high in fibre are the better food choices, unless otherwise advised, for example, some bowel conditions may require a temporary low fibre diet.

These foods can make you feel fuller for longer and provide sustained energy and are also linked with helping weight management. Two thirds of our diet should come from these foods that are plant based, and one third from starchy sources:

  • Vegetables and fruit
  • Pulses (beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas)
  • Whole grains and high fibre varieties of starchy foods, these include:

          - Brown or wild rice
          - Whole wheat pasta
          - Wholemeal, granary or rye bread
          - Oats
          - Quinoa
          - Bulgur wheat
          - Boiled potatoes with skin

Check the ingredients if you are buying processed foods for added sugars and added sugar syrups. On food labels, if there is more than 22.5g of total sugar per 100g the product is high in sugar, however, for milk and fruits the natural sugars in these foods will also be included in the food label.


This fact file is intended for adults as a general guide only and not a substitute for professional advice or a diagnosis. If you are on certain medication or suffer from a medical condition, seek individual advice from your health care professional. Date produced February 2016.


If you already have a health and wellbeing initiaitve as part of your Employee Benefits package and would like to add something new, invigorating and exciting to spice things up then for full details of our Power Up & Motivate With Positive Nutrition Workplace Wellbeing Initiative please find our brochure here and to chat through how this may be implemented in your workplace please call Anna on 07778 218009.

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