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Complex carbohydrates for weight loss

A common dieter’s myth is that all carbohydrate-rich foods are fattening and/or should be strictly limited on a weight loss diet. For weight loss and long-term weight management, consuming complex carbohydrates is essential. Overeating in general, or taking in more calories than you need for weight maintenance, regardless of the food, may lead to weight gain.

Eating a diet high in complex carbohydrates promotes overall health. These foods are important for weight management is because they contain appreciable amounts of dietary fiber, which enhances satiety, a feeling of fullness and satisfaction, for a longer period of time. In fact, roughly half of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates, particularly complex.

What are complex carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are one of the three essential macronutrients (the other two are protein and fat) that your body requires for optimal function. Like protein and fat, carbohydrates yield energy in the form of calories, about 4 calories per gram. Your body breaks down all carbohydrates into glucose where it is used for energy immediately or stored in your liver and/or muscles for later use. Carbohydrates are classified as ‘simple’ or ‘complex.’ The classification depends on not only the chemical structure of the food itself but how quickly the sugar is digested and absorbed. Complex carbohydrates, such as starches, are made up of longer sugar chains, contain dietary fiber (an indigestible complex carbohydrate), are naturally rich in vitamins and minerals and provide longer-lasting energy than simple carbohydrates. Classic examples of simple carbohydrates include sodas, candy and fruit juice.

What are some examples/food sources of complex carbohydrates?

You won’t find carbohydrate in meat products but is plentiful in plant foods, such as grains. In fact, plants can make their own carbohydrates from the carbon dioxide in the air and water taken from the soil. Photosynthesis converts the energy from sunlight into energy (as carbohydrate), which the plant uses to grow. Healthy foods, such as starchy beans, peas, whole grain breads, cereals and root vegetables are rich in complex carbohydrates. Specific food sources of complex carbohydrates include legumes, such as black, pinto, kidney beans and soybeans, black-eyed peas and split peas.

Grains, such as rye and whole wheat bread, bran cereal and oatmeal, barley, brown rice and popcorn are all healthy choices. All vegetables contain carbohydrate but root vegetables and tubers are higher in carbohydrates than their leafy green counterparts. Examples include potatoes, yams, rutabagas, parsnips, turnips and carrots. Choose these foods instead of ‘refined’ carbohydrate foods. Although processed foods made with enriched white flour such as crackers, white bread, many cereals, cookies and cakes may be considered ‘starches’ they are not healthy choices for promoting weight management.

How much do I need and what does that amount look like in specific foods/portions?

The unit for carbohydrates is a gram. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for carbohydrates for children and adults, males and females, is 130 g. However, this value represents the minimum intake needed to spare fat and protein from being broken down and used for energy and to fuel the brain/nervous system. Active adults may need roughly twice that amount daily. For example, if you are following a 1,800 calorie diet, about 50% of your calories should be devoted to carbohydrates. This is 900 calories, which, at 4 calories per gram, calculates to about 225 g daily. Roughly ⅓ of those grams will be devoted to simple carbohydrate foods, such as dairy products and fruits, which are healthy. In terms of complex carbohydrates, the remaining 150 g might be used to consume the following foods (for example): one cup of cooked oatmeal (25 g), two slices of 100% whole-wheat bread (28 g), 1½ cups of split pea soup (42 g), 1 oz. of peanuts (6 g) 8 whole-wheat crackers (22 g), 2 cups of salad composed of green leaf lettuce and red cabbage, (8 g) and ½ cooked sweet potato, without skin (19 g).

These foods are high in fiber and nutrients. Pay special attention to the quality of the carbohydrate-rich foods you choose. For the same number of grams of carbohydrate (150), you could have 1⅓ cup of corn flakes (26 g), two slices of white bread (24 g), one small slice of sponge cake (1/12 of a 16” cake, unfrosted) 36 g, one small chewy chocolate-chip granola bar (20 g) and one cup of enriched, long-grain white rice (45 g). These are ‘starchy’ carbohydrate-rich foods but are mainly refined/ made with white flour and are low in fiber. Even though both options yield the same amount of carbohydrate (in grams), the first option for distributing your carbohydrate allotment is far more filling, thus, weight-friendly.


  • National Institutes of Health – U.S. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus Fact Sheet: Carbohydrates: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/002469.htm
  • Institute of Medicine (IOM) Food and Nutrition Board (FNB) Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients) (2005):  http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10490&page=339
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service: Nutritive Value of Foods: http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/Data/HG72/hg72_2002.pdf

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