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Carbohydrates: A Primer

If there's anything that's gotten a lot of attention these past few years, it's carbohydrates.

What are carbohydrates? Carbohydrates are the major source of energy for our bodies. They are what enable us to get up in the morning and function everyday.

Carbohydrates make up the largest part of most of our diets. Carbohydrates are found in an abundance of plant and milk-based foods: fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, pasta, cereal, milk and in sugar-added foods like cookies and sodas, just to name a few.

But here is the catch: When it comes to your health, not all carbohydrates are equal. Some support good health. Others do just the opposite-especially when eaten frequently-and may even cause you to gain weight.

To see why you might gain weight, it's helpful to know how your body digests carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates In, Energy Out

Eat a food containing carbohydrates and your body gets busy turning them into usable energy:

First, your body breaks down the carbohydrates (except fiber) into tiny sugar molecules that are absorbed into your bloodstream. All the cells in your body are designed to use this sugar-called blood sugar or blood glucose-as a source of energy. Your body can use this blood glucose for energy right away or store it in your liver and muscles for later use. This finely tuned process helps your body with a nice, steady source of energy.

And that is, indeed, what happens when you eat carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, beans and whole grains (such as whole wheat and brown rice). These carbohydrates are digested more slowly and provide essential vitamins, minerals and fiber to boot. (More on fiber and its many benefits later).

Eat highly processed carbohydrates like white bread, french fries or sugary pastries, and your body converts the carbohydrates into sugar super quickly. Soon, you are hungry all over again. What's more, these types of carbohydrates tend to have more calories and fewer nutrients.

With this in mind, let's look to the Food Pyramid.

Carbohydrates and the Food Pyramid

Food PyramidThe Food Pyramid, created by the USDA, offers recommendations on food groups, eating plans, physical activity and caloric needs-all tailored to your individual needs.

Just visit and enter your personal information.

Here are general MyPyramid recommendations on grains, fruits and vegetables:

At least half of the grains you eat should be whole grains. Eat a variety of vegetables and more beans and peas. Eat fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruit.

And here are some ways to add these good carbohydrates into your everyday diet:

Go for color. Orange bell peppers, red grapes, dark leafy greens, juicy tomatoes- not only are brightly colored fruits and veggies tasty, they have lots of good-for-you nutrients and fiber.

Swap your starches. Leave out the white bread, white rice, white potatoes----including french fries. Instead, opt for more nutritious, more slowly digested starches: Brown rice instead of white and sweet potatoes instead of white potatoes. Try other good-for-you sources of starches, like bulgar (used in many Middle Eastern dishes), quinoa (a South American grain similar in texture to couscous), barley and lentils. Look for recipes on food packages and on the Internet-you'll find literally hundreds of thousands of recipes.

Choose the best fast foods-fruit and veggies. They're portable, high in nutrients, low in calories and fats and you can eat them on the run-no drive-through lines necessary.

Go whole. Look for whole grain breads, cereals and pastas. Whole grains are a good source of vitamins, minerals and fiber. How do you know if a food is made with whole grains? Easy. Whole wheat or another whole grain (such as whole oats) will be the first ingredient listed.

Have a bean bonanza. Beans are filling and good for you-and there are so many to choose from. Try chili and soups made with beans and garbanzo beans (also called chick peas) on your salads. Use beans as a side instead of potatoes or white rice.





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