Clearing up Confusion About Carbohydrates

"Carbs" are Not "Foods"

model of a glucose molecule
A model of a glucose molecule - one of the basic building blocks of carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are not foods, they are parts of foods.. Science Photo Library - Miriam Maslo/Getty Images

As time has gone on, there has been some drift in the way food and nutrition writers use the term "carbohydrates" (or "carbs"), and it seems to be causing more and more confusion. I hope this little history makes things clearer.

Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (along with proteins and fats) which make up our foods. They are essentially sugar molecules in various combinations. The word carbohydrate comes from the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms which make them up, such as this model of a glucose molecule.

Up until about 10-15 years ago, that was about it.

Since that time, there has been a gradual shift, first towards calling some high-carb foods "carbohydrates." It started out innocently enough -- potatoes, rice, and bread were "carbs" because they were made up mostly of starchy carbohydrates. Next, there were "good carbs" and "bad carbs," although the definitions of these varied depending upon who was describing them. More recently, any food that has any carbohydrate at all is sometimes called a "carbohydrate," even if it doesn't have much usable carbohydrate (spinach is now apparently a "carb" by that definition). BUT foods high in sugar, such as beverages and candy, are usually NOT called carbs.

Similarly, the term "simple carbohydrate" (which used to mean "sugar", and still is, in nutrition textbooks) has morphed into meaning almost the same as "refined carbohydrate," or the foods that contain them.

This could be a sugar or a starch -- I've seen white bread called a simple carbohydrate. "Complex carbohydrate" (which used to mean either "starch" or "fiber", and still is, according to nutrition textbooks) is now often used to mean whole foods that contain carbohydrate, even if they contain no starch at all (e.g. watermelon).

Are you confused yet?

This mess has led to statements in the media such as "carbohydrates are a good source of vitamins and minerals." This just makes me groan -- it's what science writer Michael Pollan calls "nutritionism" at its worst.

I propose that it's much more helpful to think in terms of actual food. Food has vitamins, and food has carbohydrates, but carbohydrates do not have vitamins. There is no room in a molecule of carbohydrate for a vitamin.

What you Need to Know

  • Some foods are high in carbohydrate - sugar-sweetened foods, starchy foods, dried fruit, etc.
  • Some foods are low in carbohydrate - protein foods, non-starchy vegetables, low-sugar fruits, oils, etc.
  • By and large, the plant foods that have the most carbohydrate have the lowest concentrations of vitamins and minerals. Even valuable phytonutrients tend to be more highly concentrated in vegetables and fruits with low amounts of carbohydrate. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, but it's reassuring to know that low-carb foods are often very high in nutrients.

When you see nutritional information about carbohydrates, sort out whether they are talking about foods, or the actual carbohydrate. Eat whole foods that are low in starch and sugar. The rest is mostly non-essential detail.

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