What Are Carbohydrates? - Sources & Intake Guidelines

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  • 0:01 Carbohydrates
  • 1:10 Sources of Simple…
  • 2:08 Sources of Complex…
  • 3:38 Recommended Intake
  • 5:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rebecca Gillaspy

Dr. Gillaspy has taught health science at University of Phoenix and Ashford University and has a degree from Palmer College of Chiropractic.

Do you know which foods contain carbohydrates? Learn sources of both simple and complex carbohydrates, as well as how many carbs you should consume each day to stay healthy and avoid disease, in this lesson.


If you have a lawn in front of your home, then chances are you find yourself in a yearly battle with dandelions. Those pesky little yellow flowers pop up so fast that they can turn a lovely green yard into a yellow polka-dotted mess. But did you know that those invasive weeds could actually be used as a source of nutrition if you were really hungry? That's right, dandelions are edible, and like most plant foods they are a source of carbohydrates, which are a class of nutrients that provide the body with calories.

It might help you remember that plant foods provide carbohydrates if you think back to your high school science class where you learned about photosynthesis. This is the process by which plants use the sun's energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose. Glucose is a simple carbohydrate. So, when you eat the plant, the carbohydrate is transferred to you. Carbohydrates are abundant, and most cultures of the world rely on this nutrient for energy. In this lesson, we'll learn about the different sources of carbohydrates and how many carbs you should eat on a daily basis.

Sources of Simple Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a main supplier of energy or calories for your body. Americans seem to have little trouble getting enough carbohydrates in their diet. Yet, not all carbohydrates are the same. Some are classified as simple carbohydrates because they have a simple chemical structure, which makes them easy to digest and absorb. Simple carbohydrates are often referred to as simple sugars, and as you might guess from the name, the white sugar that you use in baking or stir into your coffee is this type of carbohydrate.

Simple carbs often get blamed for weight gain or health problems because sources of simple carbohydrates include table sugar, candy, syrups and sugary beverages, like sodas. Yet, not all sources of simple carbs deserve this bad rap because we also find simple sugars in healthier options, such as fruits, which contain the simple sugar fructose, and milk, which contains the simple sugar lactose.

Sources of Complex Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can also be classified as complex carbohydrates, which are simple sugars bonded together. As you can imagine, your body has to work a bit harder to break these bonds when you eat foods that contain complex carbs. Because of this, complex carbs take longer to digest than simple ones.

In fact, complex carbohydrates include fiber, which is a part of plant foods that cannot be digested but helps foods pass through the digestive tract. Because fiber is not digested, it travels through your system intact, acting like a scrub brush that scrapes and pushes food along. Fiber is stripped out of foods if they go through a refining process, so the closer a plant food is to its natural state, the more fiber it will contain.

Complex carbohydrates also include starches, which are made up of many glucose molecules linked together. Do you remember how we talked about glucose being the simple sugar that forms during photosynthesis? Well, plants can take those simple glucose molecules and link them together to form the more complex starches. So it makes sense that the sources of complex carbohydrates, like fiber and starch, are plant-based foods. These include grains and products made from grains, like cereal, bread and pasta; starchy vegetables, like potatoes and corn; nuts; seeds; and beans.

Recommended Intake

Now that you know which foods contain carbohydrates, you might wonder how many carbs you should eat on a daily basis. The United States government has set up guidelines to help you plan your diet. Following these guidelines can help you stay healthy and avoid disease.

One guideline is the acceptable macronutrient distribution range (AMDR), which shares the recommended calorie ranges for carbohydrates, fats and proteins. If you are a healthy adult, the AMDR for carbohydrates is 45-65% of your daily calorie intake. As you can see, carbohydrates should be a big part of your diet and make up about half of your daily calorie intake.

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