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Carbohydrates, Fiber & Sugar

Did you know that carbohydrates are your body’s main source of energy? Despite the bad rap carbohydrates have received over the years, the bottom line is: you just can’t live without ‘em! They are an important part of a sensible, balanced diet.

What are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are one of the major nutrients that are needed to sustain life and they contribute to a sensible, balanced diet. Some other major nutrients are fats and proteins. All three of these nutrients contain calories. Carbohydrates contain four calories per gram.

What do carbohydrates do for your body? Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source. Your body uses carbohydrates to sustain daily activity. Carbohydrates are especially important because they are the primary nutrient the brain uses for energy!

What foods have carbohydrates?

Fruits, vegetables, and beans: All fruits, vegetables and beans have some amount of carbohydrate in the form of natural sugars and fiber. Fruits and vegetables are a great source of carbohydrates as they also contain important vitamins and minerals that the body needs. Beans are a great choice as well – in addition to carbohydrates, they are also high in vitamins, minerals and protein!

Grains: Breads, cereals, pasta, rice and other grain products are the main source of carbohydrates in the diet. Grains are also a great source of B vitamins and iron. Choose whole grain products for at least half of your grain choices because they are often also higher in fiber and other nutrients.

Sweets: Cakes, candy, cookies and other sweet treats often contain a variety of sugars and fat. Fat in a food product can play a role in flavor, mouth-feel, and structure.  Sugar is important in baking because it provides the sweet taste, structure and a slight browning of the crust (caramelization) that makes baked goods so appealing. In canned fruits and baked goods, sugar also acts as a preservative. Sweets can be high-calorie foods, so they should be eaten in moderation.  Remember, to maintain weight, it is important to balance calories consumed with calories burned.

What is fiber?
Fiber comes from plant foods that contain nondigestible carbohydrates. Research has shown that eating fiber daily can help promote bowel regularity, can help lower cholesterol, and can help maintain normal blood sugar levels. The Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommends that adults should consume between 25 and 35 grams of fiber each day. Find your fiber in whole grain products, fruits, vegetables, beans and other products with added fiber.

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What are sugars?
Sugars are carbohydrates that occur naturally or are added to foods.  Think about your favorite foods. If it’s sweet like a fresh peach or ice cream, then it contains sugar. Common sugars like sucrose (table sugar made from sugar cane or beets), fructose (found in fruits), lactose (found in milk), corn syrup, and high fructose corn syrup (made from corn) can be found in everything from fruit to candy. There are no nutritional differences between types of sugars – all sugars can be used as energy in your body.  All sugars provide four calories per gram.

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I want to eat more healthfully. Should I limit or avoid foods with carbohydrates? It is not necessary to avoid carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are an important part of a sensible, balanced diet. Foods like fruits, vegetables and beans, in addition to providing carbohydrates, also provide fiber and many vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables are also generally low in calories. Whole grains are also a sensible carbohydrate choice – they contain a variety of nutrients and are high in fiber. Consider swapping out your white bread for whole wheat bread, and try whole grains like quinoa, brown rice and oatmeal.  All foods and beverages, including those containing carbohydrate calories, can fit into a sensible, balanced diet that includes regular physical activity.  But to maintain an appropriate weight over time, it is important to balance the calories we consume with the calories we burn.

More on Carbohydrates:
Background on Carbohydrates and Sugars

More on Sugars:
Questions and Answers About Fructose
Fast Facts: High-Fructose Corn Syrup
TheTruth about Sugars

Low- and No-calorie Sweeteners:
Low-Calorie Sweeteners: Their Role in Healthful Eating
Sweet Taste without the Calories
Stevia Sweeteners: Another Low-Calorie Option
Facts about Low-Calorie Sweeteners
Q&A: Low Calorie Sweeteners and Weight Management

Five Ways to Find Your Fiber and Savor Your Sugars

  1. Choose whole grains. Make sure that half your breads, cereals, pastas, rice, and other grain products list a whole grain as the first ingredient.
  2. Plan your meal around fruits or veggies instead of meat. Try making a vegetable stir-fry where the veggies are the main event.
  3. Add color to your plate by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables to maximize vitamin, mineral, and fiber consumption.
  4. Limit sweet treats to one or two times per week.
  5. Try switching from a regular soda to one that is calorie free.

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IFIC Foundation Taste Test Challenge

To celebrate National Nutrition Month and the theme, "Enjoy the Taste of Eating Right," the IFIC Foundation filmed our very own taste test challenge. Take a look, think you would have passed?