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How Carbs Fit into a Healthy Diet

Carbohydrates are a vital part of a healthy diet and are the body’s preferred fuel source. The importance of carbs in a balanced diet can't be overstated – they’re critical energy-yielding nutrients that provide overall energy for an incredible number of functions.

Among the most important benefits of including carbs in your diet are:

  • Supplying energy to fuel strength training and to fuel working muscles
  • Providing energy to the brain to help support brain function
  • Fueling high-intensity periods of activity
  • Extending length of activity
  • Refueling muscle following activity
  • Supplying energy for muscle recovery
  • Supplying energy for muscle development

With all this in mind, let's take a closer look at the different types of carbs, their role in nutrition, and how to select the right kind of carbs. We’ll also take a stab at understanding good carbs vs. bad carbs – if there is such a thing at all.

Types of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be categorized as either simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates provide short-term energy and can be used when the body needs quick energy. Complex carbohydrates provide longer-term energy and can be used during times when the body needs a more sustained source of energy. Both sources can be introduced to your diet throughout the day as needed among meals and snacks. However, what really differs is how each may be used during activity.

The Role of Carbohydrates in Nutrition

Carbohydrates are the foundation of nutrition and make up the majority of total daily dietary needs for all healthy adults – not just athletes. The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range (AMDR) for carbohydrates are 45-65%, protein 10-35%, and fat 20-35% of daily calories. The specific amount of carbohydrates needed will vary based on individual factors such as age, sex, activity level, and goals. When it comes to activity, carbohydrate needs vary by length of training and intensity. In general, more carbohydrates may be required the more active you are, the longer you train, and the higher the intensity of your activity. It’s important to consume the right amount for individual needs, because too much or too little can have a negative effect on physical performance.

Selecting Carbohydrates in Food

Carbohydrates have become synonymous with processed foods and refined grains. As a result some people believe that carbohydrates are only found in foods like pasta and bread. But carbohydrates are found in four of the five food groups – dairy, grains, fruits, and vegetables. There are many options to choose from and a key thing to remember is there is no such thing as a good or bad carbohydrate. All carbohydrates can fit into the diet. The idea is to keep variety, balance, and moderation in mind when selecting carbohydrates.

Simple Carbohydrates



Refined Grains


100% Fruit Juice

Cream of Rice



Cream of Wheat



Rice Cakes

Frozen Yogurt


White Bread






White Rice

Cottage Cheese




Complex Carbohydrates


Starchy Vegetables

Whole Grains

Pinto Beans



Black Beans



Navy Beans



Soy Beans


Brown Rice



Whole Wheat Bread

Green Peas


Whole Wheat Pasta


Brussel Sprouts



Summing Up

No doubt, carbohydrates are a fundamental part of a balanced diet. They are essential in helping to fuel the body and muscles. Also, depending on the source, they can provide different types of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants. Remember, both simple and complex carbohydrates play an important role in energy. The optimal times to consume each type may depend on your schedule and types of activity. Embrace carbohydrates and use them to your advantage. Keep balance, variety, and moderation in mind, all while finding what works best for you, your activity, and your goals.