Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet, but there is a lot of confusion around whether they’re good for you or not. Find out what the term ‘carbohydrate’ means, the truth behind the myths, and how you can eat carbohydrates as part of a healthy diet.

What are carbohydrates?

Very few foods are pure carbohydrate. Most foods are a mix of fat, protein and carbohydrates (known as macronutrients), and vitamins and minerals (known as micronutrients).

There are three types of carbohydrates – sugar, starch and fibre

Sugar

Sugar that’s found naturally in food

Sugar is a simple carbohydrate that is digested and absorbed into your blood very quickly and easily. It is found naturally in fruit, veg (in smaller amounts), milk and milk products, for example.

Health experts are less concerned about these foods than foods with sugar added to them because the sugar is contained inside the plant cells and takes longer to digest, so they don't affect your blood sugar as much. These foods also contain other important nutrients.

Free sugar and added sugar

As sugar tastes nice, it is often added to food and drink in the manufacturing process. The sugar that is added to food is called free sugar. As you might expect, sweets, chocolates, biscuits, cake and soft drinks contain a lot of added sugar, but other more unlikely foods contain added sugar as well, such as as ready meals, milk drinks and fruit yoghurts with added sugar.

Fruit juice and smoothies are considered high in free sugar (as the sugar is absorbed into the blood very easily) so you should limit how much of these you drink, just like other sugary drinks.

Check the label

Most food products have front of pack labelling which shows how much sugar is in the product at-a-glance. Look out for foods and drinks with a green traffic light for sugar, or check the amount of sugar per 100g or per portion. 

Foods low in sugars have less than 5.0g per 100g
Foods high in sugars have more than 22.5g per 100g, or more than 27.0g per portion

Drinks low in sugars have less than 2.5g per 100mls
Drinks high in sugar have 11.25g per 100mls, or more than 13.5g per portion

Free sugars should make up no more than 5% of our daily energy intake. That's equal to about 30g (six teaspoons) of added sugars per day for an adult.

The figures given on food labels are the total amount of sugar in the product rather than the free or added sugars alone (it includes the sugar found naturally in milk, fruit and vegetables). But checking the labels is helpful for seeing if the product is high or low in sugar and comparing products to choose a healthier option.

You can also get an idea of the amount of free or added sugar by checking the ingredients list. If sugar is near the top it is likely to include a large amount. Look out for other words used to describe sugar such as cane sugar, honey, brown sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, fruit juice concentrate or purées, corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, glucose, crystalline sucrose, nectars (such as blossom), maple and agave syrups, dextrose, maltose, molasses and treacle.

Starch

Starch is made from simple sugars which are joined together. Our bodies can quickly break down this starch into sugar again, and the sugar then enters our blood.

Some foods such as rice, pasta, bread and potatoes contain more starch than protein or fat. They are often referred to as ‘carbs’ or ‘starchy carbs’.

Wholegrain varieties of these carbs such as wholemeal bread contain other important nutrients as well, so they have more health benefits than the refined options, such as white bread.

Fibre

Strictly speaking, fibre is not a nutrient because we can’t digest it in the gut and absorb it into the blood, but fibre is important for keeping our bodies healthy and most of us don’t eat enough.

Fibre is found naturally in wholegrain foods such as oats, wholemeal bread, brown rice, pearl barley, and in beans, peas, fruit and vegetables.

Why are carbs an important part of your diet?

Foods that are high in starch and fibre are important because they:

  • provide energy
  • promote a healthy gut
  • provide essential vitamins and minerals.

In fact, the UK government recommends that about half of your energy should come from carbs, particularly fibre-rich carbs

Choosing healthy carbs

Most of us eat too many sugary carbohydrates and not enough fibre-rich carbohydrates. Use the table below to choose the healthy options.  

Sugary carbs 

Starchy carbs

Fibre-rich carbs 

Cut down on these 

Limit these

Eat more of these 

Sugary drinks

Sweets

Chocolate 

Biscuits

Cakes

Jams

Syrups

Treacle

Honey

Table sugar

Ready meals 

White bread

White noodles

Processed breakfast Cereals

White rice

White pasta 

 

Wholegrains such as wholemeal flour, brown rice and wholemeal pasta

Breakfast oaks

Pearl barley

Wholewheat breakfast biscuits

Fruit

Vegetables

Lentils

Beans

Potatoes with skin on

The problem with low carb and ketogenic diets

Low carbohydrate diets, including the ketogenic diet, can contain very little carbohydrate but a lot of fat and protein. 

These diets can restrict the amount of foods and nutrients that are good for your heart, for example fruit, fibre-rich starchy vegetables, legumes, wholegrains and fibre. If you restrict carbohydrates this much you may end up eating more foods that are high in saturated fat such as meat, cheese, butter and cream, which results in a less healthy diet. It can be expensive too.

Instead of cutting down on carbohydrates, you can achieve a healthier diet overall by cutting down on sugary foods and eating more fibre-rich carbs

Carbohydrates and weight loss

To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories (energy) than you use. You can do this by limiting what you eat and being more active.

There are many ways to cut down on calories, including the low carb approach, but to keep your body healthy you need to choose the right balance of foods. This helps to make sure you get all the vital protein, fats, vitamins, minerals and fibre you need. So, it makes sense to avoid foods that contain lots of calories but few nutrients, known as ‘empty calories’.

The energy in soft drinks, sweets and sugar in your tea and coffee are examples of empty calories. But porridge, wholemeal bread, brown rice and fruit and vegetables are rich in essential nutrients and are good foods to include if you want to lose weight. So, to lose weight you, choose more fibre-rich carbs and avoid sugary ones.

Find more tips on losing weight.

Carbohydrates and diabetes

People with diabetes have difficulty controlling their blood sugar levels. Type 2 diabetes is becoming very common, especially in people who gain weight around their waistline as they get older.

Sugary carbohydrates are digested quickly so your blood sugar levels rise fast. In particular, drinking too many sugary drinks have been shown to raise the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Fibre-rich carbs release energy more slowly and help keep blood sugar in check. So, the best advice for people with diabetes is to eat fewer sugary carbohydrates and more fibre-rich carbs