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Good Carbs, Bad Carbs: Why Carbohydrates Matter to You

The right type of carbohydrates can boost your health!
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What Are the Bad Carbs?

  • Sugars
  • “Added” sugars
  • Refined “white” grains

There’s no way to sugarcoat the truth: Americans are eating more sugar than ever before. In fact, the average adult takes in about 20 teaspoons of added sugar every day, according to the USDA’s recent nationwide food consumption survey. That’s about 320 calories, which can quickly up to extra pounds. Many adults simply don’t realize how much added sugar is in their diets.

Sugars and refined grains and starches supply quick energy to the body in the form of glucose. That’s a good thing if your body needs quick energy, for example if you’re running a race or competing in sports.

The better carbs for most people are unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods that contain natural sugars, like fructose in fruit or lactose in milk.

Avoid Excess “Added Sugars”

“Added sugars, also known as caloric sweeteners, are sugars and syrups that are added to foods at the table or during processing or preparation (such as high fructose corn syrup in sweetened beverages and baked products),” explains Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokeswoman with the American Dietetic Association.

Added sugars supply calories but few or no nutrients, Gerbstadt says.

“Americans are very aware of low-fat diets and because of that we’ve been eating more fat-free and low-fat products,” notes Shanthy Bowman, USDA food scientist and author of a recently published study on sugar in the American diet.

“But what many people don't know is that in many of these products, sugar is being substituted for fat, so we've really been trading fat for sugar,” Bowman says.

The USDA recommends that we get no more than 6% to 10% of our total calories from added sugar -- that’s about nine teaspoons a day for most of us.

Use the Nutrition Label to Track Your Carbohydrates

The Nutrition Facts section on food labels can help you sort the good carbs from the bad carbs. Here’s what to look for on the Nutrition Facts label.

Total Carbohydrate. For tracking the total amount of carbohydrate in the food, per serving, look for the line that says “Total Carbohydrate.” You’ll find that often the grams of “fiber,” grams of “sugars” and grams of “other carbohydrate” will add up to the grams of “total carbohydrate” on the label.

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