Carbohydrates include sugars, starches and fiber. They come in two general types: simple and complex.

Carbohydrates Play Important Roles in Nutrition, So Make Smart Choices

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Carbohydrates include sugars, starches and fiber. They come in two general types: simple and complex. Simple carbs include such items as table sugar and fructose; they are made of single sugar units and are easier to digest. Complex carbohydrates, including starches and fiber, are made of longer chains of sugar units, which digest more slowly. Common carbohydrate foods include breads, cereals, pasta, grains, fruits, some vegetables, and beans and legumes, to name a few.

Good or Bad?

Carbohydrates have received somewhat of a bad rap in recent years, but they actually provide many health benefits. They serve as the body's main power source and provide vital nutrients such as iron, folate, antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin E, selenium, zinc and magnesium.

Complex carbohydrates, such as fiber-rich whole grains, help reduce cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease and diabetes. They also help your body feel fuller for longer after a meal, which can help cut down on between-meal snacking. Common sources of complex carbohydrates include bulgur, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, oats, wheat berries and barley.

For carbohydrates, we should be aware that too much of a good thing can be detrimental to our health. When we regularly consume more than the recommended daily amount of carbohydrates, the body can develop insulin resistance, which increases a person's risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Obesity is another common result of eating too many carbs, since the body tends to store excess carbs as fat.

For these reasons, it's best to limit your consumption of refined and processed carbohydrates — especially those found in cookies and cakes, white bread, sweetened cereals and sodas.

What to Avoid

Although not all carbohydrates provide the same benefits, breads and potatoes are not the enemy. When eaten in moderation, they can add variety and appeal to meals. When choosing the carbs you eat, try to select more fiber-rich options and make them a part of a well-balanced diet. For instance, depending on the type you select, a slice of bread can supply as little as 50 calories and as much as 4 grams of fiber.

A Closer Look at Food Labels

The first thing you want to check on food labels is the serving size, which shows not only the number of servings in that particular food product, but also the serving measurement. The serving size typically is given in household units like tablespoons or cups. For example, if a food label lists that there are 8 servings and the serving size is ½ cup, then all measurements listed for those nutrients on the label will be based on that ½ cup serving — not on the entire container.

For carbs, you need to look at the total carbohydrate content, which includes both fiber and sugar.