Carbohydrates are the body's most important and readily available source of energy. Even though they've gotten a bad rap lately and are sometimes blamed for the obesity epidemic in America, carbs are a necessary part of a healthy diet for both kids and adults.
The two major forms of carbs are:
So how, exactly, does the body process carbs and sugar? All carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, which are absorbed into the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin, which is needed to move sugar from the blood into the cells, where the sugar can be used as energy.
The carbs in some foods (mostly those that contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such as white flour and white rice) are easily broken down and cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly.
Complex carbs (found in whole grains), on the other hand, are broken down more slowly, allowing blood sugar to rise more gradually. A diet that's high in foods that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar may increase a person's risk of developing health problems like diabetes and heart disease, although these studies have been done mostly in adults.
Despite the recent craze to cut carbs, the bottom line is that not all foods containing carbohydrates are bad for kids, whether they're complex (as in whole grains) or simple (such as those found in fruits). If carbs were such a no-no, we'd have a huge problem since most foods contain them.
Still, some carbohydrate-dense foods are healthier than others. Healthy sources of carbohydrates include:
For kids over 2 years old, a healthy balanced diet should include 50% to 60% of calories consumed coming from carbohydrates. The key is to make sure that the majority of these carbs come from good sources and that added sugar in their diet is limited.
Carbohydrates have taken a lot of heat in recent years. Medical experts think consuming too many refined carbs — such as the refined sugars in candy and soda, and refined grains like the white rice and white flour used in many pastas and breads — have contributed to the dramatic rise of obesity in the United States. (Of course, not exercising and eating overly large food portions are key parts of the obesity epidemic.)
How could one type of food cause such a big problem? The "bad" carbs (sugar and refined foods) are easy to get, come in large portions, taste good, and aren't too filling. So people tend to eat more of them than needed. And some are not needed at all — foods like colas and candy provide no required nutrients; instead, they add only "empty calories."
But this doesn't mean that all simple sugars are bad. Simple carbs are also found in many nutritious foods — like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, which provide a range of essential nutrients that support growth and overall health. Fresh fruits, for example, contain simple carbs but also have vitamins and fiber.
The 2010 dietary guidelines recommend that Americans eat more unrefined ("good") carbs, saying that everyone — including kids and teens — should increase whole-grain consumption and avoid added sugar. In fact, at least half of grain intake should come from whole grains.
Whole grains certainly sound like the healthy way to go. But what makes them so different from simple carbs? Whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain breads and cereals are complex carbohydrates.
Some refined grain products are "enriched." This means that nutrients like some B vitamins (such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid) and iron are added back after processing. So these products might contain more of these nutrients than unrefined whole-grain foods that have not been fortified.
The actual amount of grain consumption needed depends on a person's age, gender, and level of physical activity. Most school-age kids should eat four to six "ounce equivalents" from the grain group each day, at least half of which should come from whole grains. An "ounce equivalent" is like a serving — one slice of bread; 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal; or a half cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or hot cereal can be considered a 1-ounce equivalent.
Foods that are high in added sugar (soda, cookies, cake, candy, frozen desserts, and some fruit drinks) tend to also be high in calories and low in other valuable nutrients. As a result, a high-sugar diet is often linked with obesity. Eating too many sugary foods also can lead to tooth decay.
The key to keeping sugar consumption in check is moderation. Added sugar can enhance the taste of some foods, and a little sugar, particularly if it's in a food that provides other important nutrients (such as cereal or yogurt), isn't going to tip the scale or send your child to the dentist.
Instead of serving foods that are low in nutrients and high in added sugar, offer healthier choices, such as fruit — a naturally sweet carbohydrate-containing snack that also provides fiber and vitamins that kids need.
One way to cut down on added sugar is to eliminate soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Consider these facts:
Instead of soda or juice drinks (which often contain as much added sugar as soft drinks), serve low-fat milk, water, or 100% fruit juice. A note: Although there's no added sugar in 100% fruit juice, the calories from those natural sugars can add up. So limit juice intake to 4-6 ounces (118-177 milliliters) for kids under 7 years old, and to no more than 8-12 ounces (237-355 milliliters) for older kids and teens.
It isn't always easy to tell which foods are good choices and which aren't. To figure out carbohydrates, look under Nutrition Facts on food labels, where you'll find three numbers for total carbohydrate: the total number of carbohydrates, the amount of dietary fiber, and sugars.
Although carbohydrates have just 4 calories per gram, the high sugar content in snack foods means the calories can add up quickly, and these "empty calories" usually contain few other nutrients.
Making sure that kids get a balanced, nutritious diet isn't as hard as it may seem. Simply make good carbohydrate choices (whole grains, fruits, veggies, and low-fat milk and dairy products), stock your home with healthy choices, limit foods containing added sugar (especially those with little or no nutritional value), and encourage kids to be active every day.
Above all, be a good role model. Kids will see your wholesome habits and adopt them, leading to a healthier lifestyle throughout childhood and into adulthood.
Reviewed by: Carla W. Holder, MD
Date reviewed: August 2014
|American Dental Association (ADA) The ADA provides information for dental patients and consumers.|
|U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by ensuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation's food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation.|
|Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Offering nutrition information, resources, and access to registered dietitians.|
|American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) The AAP is committed to the health and well-being of infants, adolescents, and young adults. The website offers news articles and tips on health for families.|
|ChooseMyPlate.gov ChooseMyPlate.gov provides practical information on how to follow the U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines for Americans. It includes resources and tools to help families lead healthier lives.|
|Healthy Teeth Produced by dentists, Healthy Teeth is designed for elementary-age students curious about oral health.|
|U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) The USDA works to enhance the quality of life for people by supporting the production of agriculture.|
|Food Guide Pyramid Becomes a Plate Goodbye, Food Guide Pyramid! Hello, MyPlate! The USDA's divided plate is designed to make it easier to understand healthy eating.|
|Food Labels Look at any packaged food and you'll see the food label. This nutrition facts label gives the lowdown on everything from calories to cholesterol. Read more about food labels.|
|Will Eating Fewer Carbs Help Me Lose Weight? Find out what the experts have to say.|
|Figuring Out Food Labels Find out how to make healthy food choices for your family by reading food labels.|
|Fiber Some of the best and most delicious foods have loads of fiber. Find out how to get your fill of fiber without sacrificing good taste!|
|Fiber and Your Child Many appetizing foods are also good sources of fiber - from fruits to whole-grain cereals. Here are ways to help kids get more fiber in their everyday diets.|
|Kids and Food: 10 Tips for Parents Here are 10 simple tips to help you raise kids who develop healthy eating habits!|
|School Lunches Packing school lunches are a chance to steer kids toward good nutrition. Here are ideas for some fun and easy lunchbox options.|
|Smart Supermarket Shopping You don't need to be a dietitian to figure out how to make healthy food choices. Before grabbing a shopping cart and heading for the aisles, read this article to make grocery shopping a snap.|
|Figuring Out Fat and Calories From all you hear, you'd think fat and calories are really bad for you, but we all need a certain amount of them in our diets. Find out the truth about fat and calories.|
|Carbohydrates and Diabetes If you have diabetes, you might think you shouldn't eat carbohydrates (carbs) at all. But all kids, including kids with diabetes, can and should eat carbs as part of a healthy diet.|
|Carbohydrates and Diabetes Meal plans can help kids with diabetes balance carbs with medications and exercise to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.|
|Learning About Carbohydrates Carbohydrates are a component of food. Find out why you need them in this article for kids.|
|Caffeine and Your Child Caffeine is in many foods and drinks, but it's wise to keep caffeine consumption to a minimum, especially in younger kids.|
|Figuring Out Food Labels The food label on a food package is a lot like the table of contents in a book - it tells you exactly what the food contains. Read our article for kids for more about food labels.|
|Fats and Your Child Fats have been wrongly accused of being "bad." But certain kinds of fat are actually good for us and are an important part of a healthy diet.|
|Smart Snacking Healthy snacks are essential for busy teens. Find out how eating nutritious snacks throughout the day can keep your energy level high and your mind alert.|
|Carbohydrates and Diabetes If you have diabetes, your doctor may have recommended keeping track of how many carbohydrates (carbs) you eat. But what exactly are carbs and how do they affect your blood sugar?|
|How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label (Video) These labels, usually found on the back of food packages, can be hard to understand. Here's how to read them.|
|Learning About Calories You've probably heard about calories. Are they good or bad for you? Find out in this article for kids.|
|A Guide to Eating for Sports You've prepared for the game in almost every way possible: but now what should you eat? Read about performance foods, nutritional supplements, and more.|
|Keeping Your Child's Teeth Healthy Here are the basics about how to care for your child's teeth - and when.|
|Nutrition & Fitness Center Want to know more about eating right and being active? This is the place!|
|Taking Care of Your Teeth The healthier your teeth are, the happier you look. That's why it's important to take great care of your teeth by brushing, flossing, and visiting the dentist. Learn more.|
|Healthy Eating Good nutrition and a balanced diet help kids grow up healthy. Here's how to improve nutrition and encourage smart eating habits.|
What to expect when coming to Akron Children's
For healthcare providers and nurses
Residency & Fellowships, Medical Students, Nursing and Allied Health
For prospective employees and career-seekers
Our online community that provides inspirational stories and helpful information.