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8 Things Dietitians Wish You Knew About Carbs

An RD gets real with some hard-hitting truths about the ever-controversial topic of carbohydrates.
FACT CHECKED BY Jordan Powers Willard

The word "carbohydrates" seems to generate a visceral response—and that response is often not positive. Carbohydrates or "carbs" are one of the most overconsumed nutrients, and it garners an abundance of attention. Around 90% of Americans consume at or above refined (AKA processed) grain recommendations and 13% of total calorie intake as added sugar, with the word carbs currently generating 1.18 billion hits on Google.

It may be surprising, however, to learn that carbs can help (or harm) our diets, depending on how they are eaten. The type and amount of carbohydrates in our regular eating pattern can make a tremendous impact to our health. Carbohydrates come in three forms: starches, sugars, and fibers. Starches are complex carbohydrates, sugar can be inherent or added to foods, and fiber is a nondigestible carbohydrate. The right balance of these carbohydrates can lead to desirable health outcomes, including preventing or managing chronic conditions like obesity and heart disease.

Here we unveil some dietitian truths about carbs so you are better equipped to make informed decisions about how to prepare your diet well with this macronutrient.

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1. Carbs don't cause diabetes.

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Most recent predictions by the American Diabetes Association state that 1.4 million people will be diagnosed with diabetes in 2023. The cause of diabetes is unknown but is a result of damage to the pancreas (type 1 diabetes), or insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes). Eating too many carbs does not trigger this response. However, lifestyle factors—like being overweight or obese or having a genetic predisposition to this condition—can increase the risk of diabetes.

2. Carbs give us energy.

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred fuel source and the brain's only fuel source in a fed or fasting state. It is the easiest and most efficient nutrient to provide our body with energy to do everything from breathing and thinking to running and dancing. Therefore, adequate carbohydrate intake throughout the day (including before physical activity) is key for stamina.

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3. Carbs from bread aren't all created equal.


When planning your grain choices—such as breads and bread-like foods, including muffins, waffles, bagels, and tortillas—opt for whole grains. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, along with other health authorities, recommends making at least half of your grains "whole." Whole grains contain all three layers of a grain, including the bran, endosperm, and germ. This includes brown rice, quinoa, whole wheat pasta, and whole grain breads.

4. Fruits and vegetables contain carbs.

The two major food groups that most of us should be striving to increase also happen to have a hefty amount of carbohydrates in their nutritional makeup. Fruit and vegetable consumption is recommended constantly by dietitians in constructing a healthy diet. One large apple contains around 34 grams of carbohydrates (25 grams as sugar), while one large tomato has about seven grams of carbohydrates (five grams as sugar).

5. Sugar can be a nutrient and a food.

simple carbs

Sugar can be found on the nutrition facts panel and/or the ingredient statement of a food product. It can be naturally present in a food (such as fruit in the form of fructose or milk in the form of lactose) or can be added under the names cane sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar, honey, or any other of a set of sugary aliases.

6. Fiber is a carb.

Fiber offers outstanding benefits to our health, including satiety, blood sugar regulation, blood cholesterol management, cancer protection, and bowel regularity. We don't want to come up short on this nutrient because it may be dismissed as "just a carb". More than 90% of women and 97% of men currently do not meet adult fiber recommendations, which are between 28-34 grams per day, depending on age and sex. High-fiber carbs include lentils, pears, and chickpeas.

7. About half of our calories should be carbs.

pasta with carbonara sauce

The "acceptable macronutrient distribution range" (AMDR) for carbohydrates is 45-65% for healthy adults. This means that someone consuming a 2,000-calorie diet should be eating between 900 to 1300 calories, or 225 to 325 grams respectively, each day as carbohydrates. This may seem high but recall that carbohydrates are found in every food group, including fruit (like bananas), vegetables (like potatoes), grains (like rice), protein (like beans), and dairy (like yogurt).

8. Carbs contain 4 calories per gram.

Four food components provide calories: fat, carbohydrate, protein, and alcohol. Carbohydrates are tied with protein as being the least caloric at four calories per gram, while pure alcohol has seven calories per gram, and fat (whether it is saturated or unsaturated) contains nine calories per gram. This information is useful for someone building a meal plan or interested in keeping a food diary.


Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD
Molly Hembree, MS, RD, LD, is a nationally recognized registered dietitian. Read more about Molly
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