Check out the carbohydrates in your diet

March 09, 1999|By Lynn F. Little

For years you have heard that low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets are best. Recently, however, low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets have become fashionable in some circles. So which is it, high-carb or low-carb and why do we need carbohydrates at all?

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Found in our most commonly eaten foods (bread, pasta, potatoes, starchy vegetables, grains, fruits and vegetables), carbohydrates provide energy for the body's most demanding tasks. When digested, they form glucose, a type of sugar that supplies our cells with the energy they need to function.

Fat and protein both require complex digestive processes to form usable energy. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are universally known as the body's preferred source of fuel. This is because they convert efficiently to glucose. Whether you are a recreational hiker or competitive endurance athlete, carbohydrates are what get you down the trail.

When people talk about low- and high-carbohydrate diets, they usually talk in terms of the percent of total calories supplied by carbohydrates. Low-carb proponents recommend 40 percent of calories from carbohydrates; high-carb proponents say 60 to 75 percent.


If you read the Dietary Guidelines For Americans, The Food Guide Pyramid and Nutrition Facts Food Labels, you will find the Percent Daily Value for carbohydrates is based on 60 percent of 2,000 calories coming from carbohydrates, or 300 grams of carbohydrates.

Not only is the amount of carbohydrates in the diet important, but also the type of carbohydrates provided. This is where the Nutrition Facts Label comes in handy. The carbohydrate content is listed as total carbohydrate, dietary fiber, sugars and other carbohydrates. When choosing among products, look for foods that are higher in dietary fiber and other carbohydrates and lower in sugars.

"Sugars" include added sugar as well as naturally occurring sugars like fructose in fruit and lactose in milk. These are simple carbohydrates, short chains of molecules linked together. "Other" carbohydrates refers to complex carbohydrates made up of longer branched chains of various sugars. These usually take longer to digest than simple carbohydrates.

Consuming an adequate level of carbohydrates per day is easy if you follow the Food Guide Pyramid. Foods at the base of the pyramid (grains, cereals, pastas, fruits and vegetables) are all rich sources of carbohydrates. Most of these foods are rich sources of fiber and complex carbohydrates. These are the ones to concentrate on. It's those carbohydrates at the top of the pyramid - sugars, sodas and sweets, that give high carbohydrate diets a bad name. As always, it is important to be sure you are getting plenty of exercise along with following a healthy diet plan.

If you would like a copy of the Food Guide Pyramid and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, send a self-addressed stamped (77 cents) business-size envelope to Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County Office, 1260 Maryland Avenue, Hagerstown, Md. 21740. Mark the envelope "Diet."

Maryland Cooperative Extension programs are open to all citizens without regard to race, color, sex, disability, age, religion or national origin.

Lynn F. Little is a family and consumer sciences extension educator for Maryland Cooperative Extension, Washington County - University of Maryland.

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