13/09/2017 7:07 AM AEST | Updated 13/09/2017 7:47 AM AEST

What Is A Carb?

Not all carbs are created equal.

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Low-carb, high-carb, no carb, all the carbs. If you're confused about what exactly everyone is referring to when they talk about carbs, you're not alone.

While many picture carbs as just bread or a bowl of pasta, in reality it's much more complex than this. Carbs are found in an array of everyday foods and drinks, and our body processes the nutrient in various ways.

Here is a simple explainer about what carbs are, in which foods are they found, and how much to eat per day.

What is a carb?

'Carb' is short for carbohydrates and refers to sugars, starches and fibres found in fruits, grains, vegetables, syrups, junk foods, milk products and more, which break down inside the body to create glucose. Carbohydrate is one of the three macronutrients -- the other two are protein and fat.

"Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose (sugar) before being absorbed into the bloodstream for energy," Anna Debenham, accredited practising dietitian of The Biting Truth, told HuffPost Australia.


"All of our body tissues and cells use glucose for functioning -- the kidneys, brain, heart, muscles and so on."

In fact, the brain's primary and preferred source of energy is glucose, meaning carbs fuel your brain.

"Most carbohydrate-rich foods also have other health benefits. Many are high in dietary fibre, which is important for keeping our digestive system healthy, and making us feel full and satisfied between meals," Debenham explained.

"Carbohydrate foods like breads and cereals are also fuel to the probiotic (helpful) bacteria in our gut, so are important for a healthy digestive tract.

"Carbohydrate foods also contain vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and magnesium."

(For the record, butter isn't a carb.)

Which foods contain carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are found in an array of both healthy and unhealthy foods. The key is to choose the healthy carbohydrates, also known as 'complex', 'low GI' or 'whole' carbohydrates. Unhealthy carbohydrates are referred to as 'refined', 'high GI' and 'simple'.

"Not all carbohydrates are created equal," Alexandra Parker, accredited practising dietitian of The Biting Truth, told HuffPost Australia.

Low GI carbohydrates (or complex carbohydrates) include most vegetables and whole grain carbohydrate foods like wholemeal breads, pasta, brown rice, rolled or steel-cut oats and quinoa.

"These are high in fibre and have a low GI so will keep you feeling fuller for longer. Choosing these over high GI (simple carbohydrate foods), like cakes, biscuits, pastry, lollies and doughnuts, is a smart way to control your weight."

Healthy carbs:

  • Starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, potatoes, peas, corn, squash)
  • Whole grains (bread, pasta, quinoa, rice, bulgur, wheat berries, etc.)
  • Pulses and legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.)
  • Milk, yoghurt and cheese
  • Fruits (fresh, frozen and dried)

Unhealthy carbs:

  • Processed foods like chips, cakes, biscuits and lollies
  • Soft drinks
  • Fruit juice
Keep these as 'sometimes', not everyday, foods.

How many carbs should you eat per day?

The amount of carbohydrates a person should consume per day depends on many factors, such as age, physical activity level and any underlying medical conditions. In any case, stick to healthy carbs.

"Carbohydrates should be making up 45-65 percent of your total daily energy intake," Parker said. "Based on the intake of the average adult (8,700 kilojoules per day) this equates to roughly 230-310 grams per day.

"Carbohydrate requirements will vary from person to person depending on gender, age and physical activity level. If you are uncertain how much to eat in order to give your body enough energy to sustain your physical activity and lifestyle, speak with a dietitian."

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A half cup of cooked quinoa equals roughly 20 grams of carbohydrates.

Which foods are higher in carbohydrates? Which foods are lower in carbohydrates?

Carbohydrate-containing foods which are higher in carbohydrate content include:

  • Vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potato, yams and sweet corn
  • Breads, pasta, rice
  • Pulses and legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.)
  • Processed foods like chips, cakes, biscuits and lollies

Carbohydrate-containing foods which are lower in carbohydrate content include:

  • Vegetables including salad vegetables and broccoli, zucchini, cauliflower, eggplant, pumpkin, mushrooms, celery, avocado, parsnips, brussel sprouts, beetroot, onions, green beans and bok choy
  • Fruits including passionfruit, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, melon, avocado and rhubarb

Focus on eating a mixture of these foods to obtain a variety of nutrients.

"Many people fear that eating carbohydrate-rich foods will make them gain weight, but if you're choosing smart, high-quality carbohydrate foods in the right amounts, there's no need to worry about weight gain," Debenham said.