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Carbohydrates: Fuel for Your Brain and Body

Fuel for Your Brain and Body

Carbo what?
How much is enough?
What's a complex carbohydrate?
Is sugar a food group?

Carbohydrates come from the big food group at the base of the MyPyramid. Carbs keep your body running full speed ahead. They are your fuel and main source of energy. Your body uses carbohydrates for everything from arm wrestling to catching some Zs. You need fuel for the things your body does without your having to think about it. That includes breathing, body temperature maintenance, digestion, heart functions, and the relay race of nerve messages to your brain. All those activities gobble up about two-thirds of your daily calorie needs. The other third is used up by everything else: walking, shopping, talking, and even chewing gum. back to top

Carbo what?
When you digest your food, your body breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars called glucose, galactose, and fructose. These sugars travel through your blood to your cells, where they are turned into energy. Some are converted into glycogen and then sent to your muscles and other cells for later use. If you eat more carbohydrates than you need to meet your daily energy demands, these sugars are stored as body fat. back to top

How much is enough?
As a general rule, carbohydrates should make up a little more than half of your daily calorie intake. The number of calories you need every day depends on your activity level. Most teenage girls need about 2,200 calories a day. That means about 1,200 to 1,300 calories should come from carbohydrates. If you are an active teen who uses up energy playing sports, dancing, or doing another physically demanding activity, you'll need more carbohydrate fuel to keep your body fit and healthy. back to top

What's a complex carbohydrate?
There are two types of carbohydrates: complex and simple. As the name suggests, complex carbohydrates have more of the nutrients your body needs. Good nutrition means choosing complex carbohydrates more often than not. That doesn't mean you have to carry around a calorie counter or consult complicated food charts before you eat. Just think plants. Complex carbohydrates are plant-based foods like cereals, breads, rice, pasta, vegetables, and legumes (peas and dried beans). These foods are packed with the vitamins, minerals, and fiber your body needs to function well. And as a bonus, foods that are mainly complex carbohydrates like vegetable chili with kidney beans or tabouli salad usually contain less fat than those simple carbohydrate goldfish crackers. back to top

Is sugar a food group?
Simple carbohydrates are sometimes called simple sugars. Like complex carbohydrates, they come from plants. But sugars lack most of the nutrients your body needs. Table sugar, white flour, and processed foods like cookies, candies, and soft drinks, are mostly simple carbohydrates. When you check the Nutrition Facts label on a box of cheese-flavored crackers, you might find that a single serving has as many calories as an apple. But that's only half the story. Although those crackers may have the same number of calories per gram as a complex carbohydrate, they do not have as many nutrients. That's why simple carbohydrates are called empty calories. So choose whole-grain breads like rye instead of the fluffy white stuff, and you'll be on your way to making your diet more "complex."

Of course, there is an exception to every rule. Fresh fruits are simple carbohydrates, but they are an important part of a healthy diet for teens. back to top

Last Modified Date: 3/30/2001
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