Carbohydrates…what are they??

There is a lot of confusing messages about foods containing carbohydrates. Foods that contain carbohydrates provide us with energy, vitamins, minerals and fibre which are all important for health.

Put simply, carbohydrates provide the body’s primary source of energy.

Simple carbohydrates, such as sugars (glucose, fructose, lactose, sucrose), give instant energy and have no other nutritional density. Food examples of simple carbohydrates can be natural (some fresh fruit juices) or processed (refined) and include fruit juices and concentrate, syrups, candies, table sugars (white and brown), soft drinks. Sugars are intrinsic in fruits and milk products. Sugars also are added to foods during processing and preparation or at the table. These “added sugars” (or extrinsic sugars) sweeten the flavour of foods and beverages to improve their palatability. Sugars are also used in food preservation and for functional properties such as viscosity, texture, body, and browning capacity. They provide calories but insignificant amounts of vitamins, minerals, or other essential nutrients.

Complex carbohydrates are found in vegetables, bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals and pulses and they contain fibre, vitamins and minerals. Complex carbohydrates also known as polysaccharides, are starches formed by longer saccharide chains, which means they take longer to break down hence release energy slowly. Wholegrain carbohydrates are more nutritious than refined products because they are digested slowly, providing sustained energy. Some food examples are wholegrain bread, wholegrain rice and pasta, beans, lentils, chickpeas, oatmeal, quinoa, barley, peas.


Carbohydrates, also known as saccharides or carbs, provide energy for the body. Each gram of carbohydrate provides 4 calories.

Latest research has suggested that it is important to be aware of ‘free sugars’ and to limit our intake of these. It is recommended that adults consume no more than 30g free sugar (approximately seven teaspoons) per day. Examples of free sugars include table sugar (white and brown), coconut sugar, syrup and honey.

UK government dietary recommendation for adult female (per day)

Carbohydrate: At least 267g (or 50% food energy)

Free sugars: No more than 27g (or 5% food energy)

UK government dietary recommendation for adult male (per day)

Carbohydrate: At least 333g (or 50% food energy)

Free sugars: No more than 33g (or 5% food energy)

How much of carbohydrates should we eat?

A portion about the size of your fist is an appropriate mealtime portion of carbohydrate-containing foods. This can then be adjusted depending on your activity levels.

Dietary fibre is a type of carbohydrate that the body digests slowly. It is naturally found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans and whole grains. Fibre rich foods promote digestive health by boosting regular bowel movements, weight loss, lowers blood sugar and cholesterol, and may help reduce a person’s calorie intake. In the UK, nutritionists recommend intakes of at least 30 grams (g) of dietary fibre per day.

It is advisable to select carbohydrate foods high in dietary fibre, including whole-grain breads and cereals, legumes, vegetables, and fruits, whenever possible. Typically, vegetables and fruits are not the most concentrated fibre sources, but these are important foods to encourage because they contribute important micronutrients. Similarly, milk and milk products, which contain lactose, generally do not contain fibre but these, too, are important because they contribute calcium, vitamin D, and protein to the diet.


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