Carbohydrates: Are they really essential?

Written by Amber Charles, MSPH, RDN on October 20, 2021 — Fact checked by Alexandra Sanfins, Ph.D.



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 Groups

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