Carbohydrates (often shortened to carbs) are a source of energy for the body where they are used to fuel cells such as the muscles and brain.
There are three different types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches and fibre. Starches and fibre are sometimes referred to a complex carbs.
Also known as simple carbohydrates. Sugar occurs naturally in some foods including honey, fruit, vegetables, fruit juices, milk and dairy products (lactose) as well as in refined forms as sugar of any kind (including brown and coconut) and all syrups (including agave, date) added in cooking, at the table or to processed foods and drinks such as sweets, chocolates, biscuits, cakes and sugary drinks. It is the latter (in red) we need to cut down on not those found naturally in whole fruit, vegetables and unsweetened dairy products (in green).
Starches are complex carbohydrates found in foods that come from plants. They contain fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins. Good choices include wholegrain cereals, brown rice, wholegrain pasta, potatoes with skins, pulses (lentils), beans and wholegrain bread.
Fibre is a complex carbohydrate found in foods that come from plants. Unlike sugars and starches fibre can’t be directly broken down and used by the body to provide energy but is important for digestive health. Good sources of fibre include vegetables and fruit (especially with skin and pips), wholegrain cereals, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, oats, pulses (beans and lentils), nuts and seeds.
Current advice is to eat starchy carbohydrate foods every day and choose wholegrain or higher fibre versions with less added fat, salt and sugar.
Sugary foods such as sweets, chocolates, biscuits, cakes, pastries and sugary soft drinks also tend to be high in energy (calories) with few other nutrients. Eating/drinking these foods often can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay and over time may negatively affect health.
Foods such as fruit, vegetables, beans, lentils and starchy foods (especially whole grain varieties) provide a wide range of nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals and plant phytochemicals which benefit our health as part of a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle.
The type of carbohydrates you eat is important for your health, so avoid sugary foods and choose fruit, vegetables, beans, pulses and wholegrain starchy food in appropriate portions sizes.
Carbohydrates contain the same amount of calories per gram (4kcal/g) as protein (4kcal/g) and fewer than half the calories of fat (9kcal/g). Often, it’s the other things added to carbohydrates, such as fat and sugar to make food like biscuits, pastries and savoury snacks, which increases the energy (calorie) content. It’s about portion size too as it can easy to eat too much. Eating too many calories – regardless of their source – will contribute to weight gain.