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Carbohydrates: Are they really essential?

Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient, and they provide the body with energy. Whether they are essential to the diet remains a highly debated topic. In this Honest Nutrition feature, we define the term “carbohydrates,” discuss whether they are essential in the diet, and explain what happens when people restrict them.

To address whether carbs are essential, it is essential to explore the role of carbohydrates — specifically glucose — in the body and diet.

Carbohydrates are one of the three main classes of macronutrients, alongside proteins and fats. They provide energy to the body, which breaks them down into glucose.

There are three types of carbohydrates: starches, simple sugars, and dietary fiber. However, people may use the term carbohydrates loosely, and incorrectly, to define just starchy foods.

Using this term to refer solely to starchy foods such as bread, rice, and potatoes may lead to an incomplete understanding of the role of carbohydrates in the diet and the body.

Furthermore, carbs are present in a wide variety of foods. Here are some dietary sources of carbs:

Food group Carbs per serving, in grams Examples
grains 15 quinoa, sweet potato, and rice
legumes 17 pinto beans, black beans, and lentil peas
dairy 11 cow’s milk, yogurt, and cheese
fruits 15 cherries, raspberries, and stone fruit
vegetables 5 Brussels sprouts, bok choy, and cabbage

These numbers show that nonstarchy vegetables provide about one-third the amount of carbohydrates compared with grains, legumes, and fruits. However, they are not completely devoid of carbs.

Given that food sources of carbohydrates also provide essential micronutrients — such as B vitamins for energy production and disease-fighting phytochemicalsTrusted Source — these foods remain important in the diet.

However, the diversity of food sources of carbohydrates means that higher intakes of starchy foods specifically may not be necessary.

Carbohydrates in the body

The body breaks down carbohydrate into its major energy-producing form — glucoseTrusted Source.
Glucose then undergoes a series of enzyme reactions that generate the energy-producing substrates pyruvate and lactate in a process called glycolysisTrusted Source.
Under normal metabolic conditions and oxygen availability, pyruvate is the main precursor to energy production in the mitochondria of the cell, and the body consistently produces small amounts of lactate via the lactate shuttle.
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