Carbs, what are they good for?

Nutrition basics: Carbs – short for carbohydrates
different types of italian macaroni
Photo by Klaus Nielsen on

So, what are carbs good for? What even are carbs?

What are carbs good for?

Carbohydrates, or carbs, are a main source of energy for the body.

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats), that our bodies break down into energy. This energy is what we measure with calories. So along with protein and fats, carbohydrates are where we get calories to use for energy.

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the brain, most of the time.

Carbohydrates are the quickest available form of energy

Carbohydrates, stored in our muscles in the form of glycogen, are an easily available energy source during exercise

Carbohydrates that are not used for energy can be stored as fat for later use.

Different types of carbohydrates break down at different rates and so can give us energy at different speeds

Some carbohydrates act as food for the bacteria that live in our digestive system. Choosing certain types of carbohydrates over others helps keep these bacteria (and us) healthier.

What even are carbohydrates?


[This explanation is for the science nerds. Skip ahead if you want more practical definitions]

Carbohydrates are combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules in the ratio of 1:2:1 (carbon + H2O/water/hydro=carbohydrate for you word nerds).

We get energy from these molecules when they go through a process called cellular respiration (which nutrition students spend A LOT of time memorizing for how little we use it in day to day nutrition practice). This process requires oxygen and produces energy, carbon dioxide, and water. This one of the main reasons we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide and water by the way.

hand illustrated guide showin interaction between photosynthesis, cellular respiration
Drawn by me as a student. I’m proud enough of this study aid that it’s been on my office wall for years.


The carbohydrates we eat come in three forms: sugars, starches, and fibers.

Sugars can come in naturally occurring forms like in fruit, milk (lactose), vegetables, honey, grains, etc. They can can also be refined and added to foods (white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, agave, etc.). This is the quickest to digest form of energy.

There are lots of types of starches but these are the carbohydrates we mainly get from foods like grains, starchy veggies (potato, corn, cassava, sweet potato), seeds, legumes. These can be in the form of breads, pastries, cereals, porridges, noodles, doughs – carbohydrates and starches are very versatile!

Fiber is a mostly indigestible carbohydrate that we actually don’t break down well into energy, but gives us lots of other health benefits (including feeding good bacteria in the digestive system). Lots of foods have fiber, including fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and beans.

chocolate cereal on white bowl near glass of milk
Photo by Pixabay on – Many of us think of high fiber cereals or bran but fiber is present in many foods!

Many foods that contain carbohydrates contain a combination of sugar, starch and/or fiber.

When people in general talk about carbs, they often mean different things. Some people just mean bread or pastries. Other people mean foods made with flour: bread, pasta, crackers, cereal. Some people mean all starchy foods and sweets: bread, rice, potatoes, tortillas, cookies. Some people mean any foods that contain any significant amount of carbohydrates at all – they include fruits and many veggies in this list (especially common when following a keto diet)

When dietitians talk about carbohydrates, we usually just mean a category of foods that are rich in carbohydrates. Usually this means: fruits, milk, starchy foods, sweets, sweet drinks, etc. But it is always a good idea to clarify. Most of us aren’t talking about molecules when we talk about what we eat.

I always have to be careful when I am speaking with a client about carbs that we are thinking of them same foods. If not, that’s ok – we just need to make sure we have the same understanding.

Are carbs bad?

No. See: what are carbs good for?

Are there a wide variety of carbohydrate foods with a wide variety of nutritional benefits and/or lack of benefits?

Yes. A can of Coke is very different than an apple is very different than a loaf of sourdough is very different from a pot of beans. All of these foods provide carbohydrates.

Do I need to restrict carbs? How much carbs should I eat?

This is a great question to discuss with a dietitian who can go over your individual needs with you. They can also determine if there are specific types of carbohydrate-rich foods that might be a better fit for you than others. There are many different diet patterns as far as carbohydrates go that are healthy options – telling you what pattern is right for you is NOT within the scope of this article.

TL;DR on Carbohydrates:

  • Carbohydrates are good for energy and to feed our gut bacteria
  • Carbohydrates come in three forms: sugar, starches, and fiber
  • There are a variety of foods rich in carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables, milk, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains. Different foods have different benefits and effects on the body
  • Talk to a dietitian if you need help figuring out how much carbohydrate or what type of carbohydrate you need.

If you’ve made it to the end of this article, here’s a reward. Crabohydrates is a common typo for me, so I finally illustrated it.

various carbohydrates but drawn as if they were crabs. (orange crab, crusty bread crab, cupcake hermit crab, ugly potater crab, le petit crabe croissant, tiny grain of rice crab)

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

Good nutrition news: canned pumpkin (and pumpkin pie)

photo of pumpkins
Photo by Pixabay on

Today we’re talking canned pumpkin puree (and then pumpkin pie).

The type of pumpkin that is usually used to make pumpkin pie and other pumpkin goodies. (Note that this is about plain canned pumpkin, not canned pie filling. There’s nothing wrong with canned pie filling, it’s just not the same nutritionally as it already has sugars and spices mixed in)

First of all, pumpkin is a vegetable.

No one would argue about butternut squash being a vegetable, right? Pumpkin is very close nutritionally to butternut squash. It goes in the red-orange vegetable group with carrots, sweet potatoes, and tomatoes. You can totally count pumpkin as part of your vegetable intake for the day. Now, the general amount of vegetables that the USDA recommends eating per day is 2 1/2 cups, so unless you’re sitting down to eat a big can of pumpkin, it won’t take care of all of your veggie intake, but it can certainly be part of it.

myplate diagram

Pumpkin provides some impressive nutrition

The way canned pumpkin is processed means that some of the water has been taken out (via cooking) so its nutrients are concentrated!

1/2 cup of cooked pumpkin has:

  • 3.5g of fiber (10% of the recommended daily amount for men and nearly 15% of the daily recommendation for women) – helps manage cholesterol and blood sugar, feeds good bacteria in our intestines, promotes regular bowel movements, helps us feel full
  • nearly 10% of the daily recommended amount of iron – vital for oxygenation of the blood
  • 25% of the recommended amount of vitamin K – important for blood clotting
  • over 350% recommended daily amount of vitamin A (no, that is not a typo, it is super high in vitamin A) – acts as an antioxidant, important for skin and immune health, important for healthy vision

Nutrition data from:

Canned pumpkin in context: pumpkin pie

Most of us probably will not just sit down and eat 1/2 cup of plain canned pumpkin by itself. So how much of that good nutrition will you get in a slice of pumpkin pie? Well, of course it depends on the the recipe and the size of the slice.

Let’s take Libby’s recipe for example (that’s the recipe on the back of the Libby’s pumpkin can). And we’ll say that we cut the pie into 8 slices because that’s easy math. In each slice, there will be about 1/4 cup of canned pumpkin (half the amount we calculated before), so it will have:

  • 1.8g fiber (about 5% of the recommended daily amount for men and 7% for women)
  • Nearly 5% of the daily recommended amount of iron
  • Over 10% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin K
  • and 190% of the daily recommended amount of vitamin A

Some of those amounts might seem small, but realistically, this is the way most people get nutrients from food. Small amounts from different foods that add up during the day. For comparison’s sake, one serving of Benefiber Original has 3 g of fiber, which is about 8% of the recommended daily value for men and 12% of the recommended daily value for women.

And it certainly has more vitamin A, iron, and fiber than many other desserts, like angel food cake or brownies.

Now of course, we must acknowledge that eating a slice of pumpkin pie (with ice cream or whipped cream perhaps too) also comes with more sugar, salt, and fats than just plain pumpkin, so if these are nutrients that you need to limit for a health condition, take those into account.

(and regardless, probably don’t make pumpkin pie the only way you eat vegetables)

However, a pumpkin pie having fats, sugar, and salt, doesn’t mean that you won’t get benefit from the fiber, iron, vitamin K, or massive amounts of vitamin A. You may also get extra calcium if the pie is made with evaporated milk, and extra fiber and/or B-vitamins if the crust is made with whole wheat flour

The bottom line: If you like pumpkin pie, enjoy it! (And know you’re getting a decent amount of fiber, iron, vitamin K, and a super amount of vitamin A!)

Want to try some savory pumpkin recipes?

Here’s some suggestions:

Pumpkin Soup from two peas & their pod

Creamy Pumpkin Marinara from Cookie + Kate

Healthy Pumpkin Chili from All the healthy things

This post is intended to be informational only and is not medical or nutritional advice. If you have questions about your unique needs, ask about a custom meal plan or speak with a registered dietitian-nutritionist near you.

Also links go to third-party sites, I’m not responsible for those sites or the ads they display, so go at your own risk.

How to Lentils: Low-effort & low-cost plant protein

Before I tell you how I cook lentils, if you need reasons why you should eat lentils, here’s a list:

  1. Really nutritious*
  2. Really cheap
  3. As they are usually sold canned or dry, they keep for a long time
  4. Pretty environmentally friendly*
  5. Pretty easy to cook (and faster than beans)

*Read til after the recipe if you want more of an explanation for this list.

The super easy method to cook lentils:

Buy canned lentils and season them with whatever sauce or seasoning you like. Warm them up or eat them cold. Done. Easy.

The slightly more work but still pretty easy way to cook lentils is:

  1. Measure out the dry lentils you want to cook. They don’t expand that much pasta or beans do, so don’t worry about that.
  2. Give em a good rinse. They don’t need to soak like beans do, although it won’t hurt them if you do. I like to put them in a colander and run water through.
  3. While you’re rinsing, take out any small rocks you find. I haven’t found rocks often, but a few times I have found them with my teeth :/
  4. Find a pot that will fit the lentils you have measured, plus twice that amount of water (so 2 cups of water for 1 cup lentils) and a little extra. It will help if it has a lid that fits.
  5. Put the lentils and water in that pot along with a little salt.
  6. Put the pot on a stove burner or hotplate and cover with a lid.
  7. Turn the stove or hotplate to high heat and wait until the lentils are boiling. Once they are boiling, turn the stove down to low (keep the lid on).
  8. Let it continue to cook on low until most of the water is absorbed or until they are the softness you like (anywhere from 15-45 minutes.) Drain any extra water out.
  9. Taste, add more salt and other seasonings as needed.


To add more flavor, use broth instead of water, add other spices with the salt. Or, before putting the lentils in the pot, cook some onions, garlic, spices, or other aromatic veggies in some oil, then add the lentils.

in case you prefer a video

If you’ve tried lentils before and were put off by the mushy texture, I suggest trying French lentils, as they tend to hold their shape better. Eating them in a salad vs. by themselves or as a soup may also help them be more appealing. Here’s a great French lentil salad recipe from Once Upon a Chef.

Cookie and Kate has a great and very detailed guide if you want specific cooking times for specific kinds of lentils.

The good nutrition news about lentils:

1 cup of cooked lentils has:

  • 17.9g of protein! About the same as 1 and 1/2 eggs! (Just make sure you also eat a whole grain to get all your amino acids in. If you want to learn more, read this)
  • over 6mg of iron, which is 33-75% of your recommended daily intake, depending on your needs
  • Over 15g of fiber, which is 40-60% of your recommended daily intake!
  • over 350 micrograms of folate, which is about 90% of your recommended daily intake!

Generally, plant-foods use fewer resources, including water and energy, than animal foods. This is also true for lentils. Lentils also have the added bonus of being nitrogen-fixing, which means that if farmers use lentils as part of crop rotation, less fertilizer is required. (Source)

Of course, there are a lot of great lentil recipes out there from around the world! Do you have any favorites?