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What Is a Carbohydrate?

Learn the science behind carbohydrates, and find out which foods fit that category.

In this article, you will find:

Complex carbohydrates


What Is a Carbohydrate?


Legumes are vegetables in the bean and pea family that are rich in complex carbohydrates, protein, and fiber. They supply iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and several B-vitamins, including folic acid. Because these provide both complex carbs and protein, they fit in the meat and beans group and the vegetable group. Legumes include black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, soybeans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas (garbanzos), split peas, lentils, and nuts and seeds, which are higher in fat.

Technically speaking, a carbohydrate is a compound made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. The most basic carbohydrates are called simple sugars and include honey, jams, jellies, syrup, table sugar, candies, soft drinks, fruits, and fruit juices. Glucose (also called dextrose) is a common simple sugar found in fruits, honey, and vegetables. It is also the substance measured in blood. (In other words, blood sugar equals blood glucose.) They are relatively small compounds. When several of these simple sugars are linked together, they form more complicated molecules known as complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates that come from plants are called starch and are found in quality foods such as grains, vegetables, breads, seeds, legumes, and beans. Whether it's a handful of jelly beans or freshly sliced whole grain bread, it's all carbohydrate!

Sweet Satisfaction: The Lowdown on Simple Sugars

So your favorite sugary sweets are classified as carbohydrates—and you're supposed to eat a lot of carbohydrates—so it's okay to load up on gummy bears and licorice, right?

Does sugary candy promote dental cavities?

Actually, all foods that contain carbohydrates (rice, pasta, potato, cakes, cookies, and, yes, candy) can mix with the bacteria in plaque and increase your risk for tooth decay. Sadly, nutrient-dense raisins are amongst the worst offenders. But don't panic. By brushing a few times each day, flossing daily, and swishing water around in your mouth after eating, you can fight off the drill.

Not a chance. Here's why: the quality of your carbohydrates matters tremendously. Simple sugars such as candy, sodas, and sugary sweeteners found in cakes and cookies offer little in the form of nutrition except providing your body with energy and calories. These foods are literally "empty calories" —calories with no nutritional value. In moderation, simple sugars are perfectly fine (and, I admit, yummy), but people who consistently load up on the sweet stuff often find themselves too full for, or uninterested in, the healthy foods their bodies require. The end result is too much sugar and not enough nutrients.

Where Do Fruits and Fruit Juices Fit In?

There are some exceptions to the “no sugar” rule. For example, fruits and fruit juices contain fructose (a natural simple sugar) and provide several vitamins and minerals. Eating fresh fruit or drinking 100 percent fruit juice is far from pumping “empty calories” into your system. When you can, choose whole fruit over fruit juice: you get the same nutrients, as well as more complex carbohydrates and fiber.

As you can see in the following table, juice and cola both contain simple sugars, but juice provides a lot more nutrition.

8 oz. of orange juice 8 oz. of cola

110 calories 100 calories
26 grams carbohydrate 26 grams carbohydrate
25 grams sugar 26 grams sugar
120% daily vitamin C 0% daily vitamin C
12% daily potassium 0% daily potassium
20% daily folic acid 0% daily folic acid

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