Healthy eating habits/The Truth Behind Carbohydrates

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This page was written as an education resource for Australian women aged 19-50 years.

What are carbohydrates?

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Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient; ‘macro’ meaning that it makes up the bulk of what we eat and ‘nutrient’ is a part of food which is used by the body for growth, maintenance and repair. However the carbohydrates found in different foods are not all the same. The two main types include the simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (starches and fibre). They differ in their chemical structure which affects how they are processed in the body.

When we eat carbohydrate containing foods, our body breaks it down into sugars called glucose which acts like a fuel to make energy. Certain parts of the body, such as the brain, can only use glucose as its energy source. This is why carbohydrates are needed in a healthy diet.

Food sources of carbohydrates

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Carbohydrate rich foods

Most of the carbohydrates we eat come from plant sources, besides the sugars found in milk and small amounts of carbohydrates found in meat.

Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as:

  • Bread
  • Cereals
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Legumes (beans, peas, lentils)

Simple carbohydrates are found in nutritious foods such as:

  • Milk
  • Fruit

However, they are found in many ‘sometimes’ foods such as:

  • Confectionary
  • Biscuits
  • Cakes/Muffins
  • Pastries

Are carbohydrate foods fattening?

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Weight gain occurs when energy in (so the foods you are eating and drinks consumed) is more than energy out. Therefore eating carbohydrate foods such as bread and pasta in a diet that is balanced in energy, will not cause weight gain.

Foods such as wholegrains, vegetables and legumes which are rich in complex carbohydrates, can help maintain body weight as eating these foods will make you feel fuller for longer (due to the dietary fibre) as well as reduce the risk of diseases, such as heart disease.

However certain carbohydrate foods such as biscuits, muffins and cakes if consumed regularly may cause weight gain as they are high in energy (kilojoules).

How much carbohydrates are needed in the diet?

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In a healthy diet, carbohydrates should contribute to 45-65% of our total energy intake. This is more than fat and protein.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating shows how much of each food group we should be having in our diets. The grain (cereal) and vegetables food group, which are high in carbohydrates, should be eaten more in our diet compared to the other food groups.

The table below shows the recommended daily number of serves for grain (cereals), vegetable and fruit food groups, for women aged 19-50 years. For information relating to the other food groups, visit the Australian Dietary Guidelines. The table also shows the average carbohydrate and dietary fibre in grams, per serve. It is recommended to have 30g of fibre per day as it is good for your health, such as lowering cholesterol and risk of constipation. This amount recommended is achievable if you eat plenty of grains, vegetables and fruit.

Food Group Recommended number of serves 1 serves equals? Average carbohydrate (grams) per serve Average Dietary fibre (grams) per serve
Grain (cereal) 6 -1 slice of bread
-1/2 medium bread roll
-1/2 cup cooked rice, pasta, noodles, polenta or quinoa
-1/2 cup cooked porridge
-2/3 cup whole wheat flakes
-1/4 cup muesli
15 1-2
Vegetables 5 -1/2 cup cooked green or orange vegetables (eg. broccoli, carrot or spinach)
-1/2 cup cooked or dried beans, peas and lentils
-1/2 medium potato
-1 cup of leafy greens or salad
-1 medium tomato
20 (legumes eg. lentils)

15 (starchy vegetables eg. potato, corn and peas)

5 (non-starchy vegetables eg. tomatoes and broccoli)
6-8 (legumes)

2-3 (other)
Fruit 2 -1 medium apple, banana, orange or pear
-1 cup of diced/canned fruit
-2 small apricots kiwi fruits or plums
15 2

Reading nutrition information panels (focusing on sugars and dietary fibre)

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The nutrition information panel of this food product (quinoa) shows that it is low in sugar, but a good source of dietary fibre

By reading the product’s nutrition information panel, this will show you if the food product is low in sugar or a good source of dietary fibre.

  • A low sugar food product is considered to have no more than 5g of sugar per 100g of solid food.
  • A good source of dietary fibre product has more than 4g of dietary fibre per serve. An excellent source has greater than 7g of dietary fibre per serve.

These tips can help you make better food choices next time you are at the supermarket.

For more information about nutrition information panels, visit the Food Standards Code. This website has information about general food standards (such as labelling of ingredients), food product standards, food safety as well as primary production standards used in Australia and New Zealand.


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Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). (2013). Standard 1.2.7 – Nutrition, Health and Related Claims. Retrieved from

Marieb, E.N., & Hoehn, K. (Ed.). (2010). Human Anatomy & Physiology – Eighth Edition. San Francisco, California: Pearson Benjamin Cummings

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – Australian Government. (2013). Eat for health – Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary. Retrieved from

Whitney, E., Rolfes, S.R., Crowe, T., Cameron-Smith, D., & Walsh, A. (2011). Understanding Nutrition: Australian and New Zealand Edition. South Melbourne, Australia: Cengage Learning Australia.