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Are Carbohydrates Really Good for Us?

With all the mixed messages in the media surrounding carbohydrates and the pros and cons of low carb diets, it’s no wonder that so many of us are confused as to whether carbs are actually good for us!

The demonisation of carbohydrates has led to much speculation about whether we need carbs at all, resulting in 48% of Australians avoiding grain foods – the primary source of carbohydrates in our diet – for reasons including weight loss, bloating and allergies(1) Here, the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council take a look at the evidence to understand why carbohydrates are part of a healthy diet.

So what are carbohydrates and why do we need them?

When we think of carbohydrates, our thoughts tend to turn straight to bread! But carbs are found in many other foods too, such as whole grains, breakfast cereals, rice, pasta, noodles and crispbreads, legumes such as lentils, beans, peas and chickpeas, dairy, fruit and starchy vegetables. They’re also present in confectionery, chips, cakes, pastries, soft drinks, sugar and honey.

One common misconception is that the benefits carbohydrates provide can be found easily in other foods. But carbs are actually an essential nutrient – just like protein or healthy fats – and we need a certain amount every day to sustain our energy levels and fuel our body and brain. And research has shown that grain consumers actually have healthier diets and lifestyle patterns compared to those who avoid core grain foods(2).

What type of carbohydrates should I be eating?

For the best nutritional bang for your buck, it’s important to focus on choosing quality sources of carbohydrate including whole grain, high fibre and low Glycaemic Index (GI) foods – by doing this, you’ll be getting a range of nutrients needed for good health and wellbeing. And research has shown that the right mix of good quality carbohydrates can reduce risk of chronic disease(3,4) and early death(5-7).

Whole Grain Foods High Fibre Foods Low GI Foods
Whole grain foods, such as wholemeal and multigrain breads and wholemeal pasta are rich in antioxidants and contain essential nutrients such as fibre, folate, iron, magnesium, thiamine and iodine. High fibre foods, such as wholemeal breads and high fibre breakfast cereals, are essential for digestive wellbeing and promote good health in the long term. Grain foods provide nearly half of our total fibre intake(8). Lower GI foods have a range of health benefits as they are absorbed slowly, causing smaller increases in blood glucose levels. Many grain foods are low GI, such as intact whole grains, oat or bran based cereals and wholemeal breads.

With so many different sources of carbohydrates it can be difficult knowing which to choose, but when choosing grain foods like bread and breakfast cereal, just remember to look for on-pack claims such as ‘contains whole grain’, ‘high in whole grain’ or ‘very high in whole grain.’

  • Core grain foods like bread and breakfast cereal are the leading source of carbohydrate in the Australian diet and provide almost half of our fibre intake(8).

And what about ‘refined’ carbohydrates?

Refined grain core foods do contain fibre, vitamins and minerals, just less than their whole grain counterparts. So refined sources of carbohydrate like white bread, pasta and rice, are a good choice as part of a balanced diet, but treats like cakes and biscuits should just be occasional treats. Whole grains are a better choice so aim to eat them most of the time – use our handy guide below to help with your grain food choices.

Occasional treats Good Everyday Choice Better Everyday Choice
Muffins White bread Wholemeal bread
Biscuits White pasta Whole grain bread with intact grains (make sure you can see the grains in the bread)
Pizza White rice Wholemeal pasta
Pies   Brown rice
    Other whole grains eg. oats, rye, barley, buckwheat & quinoa

Now for the big question, how much should we be eating?

The amount of carbohydrates we need as part of a healthy, balanced diet will vary depending on a number of factors including age, gender and activity levels. Instead, we recommend focusing on the number of serves you need each day – for an adult this means enjoying core grain foods 3-4 times a day and making at least four of these serves whole grain or high fibre options – this may sound like a lot but is very achievable.

It’s easy to get the recommended amount of quality carbohydrates every day – this might look like a bowl of high fibre breakfast cereal in the morning, a wholemeal sandwich for lunch and a stir-fry with rice for dinner. It’s even easier when you use our handy serve size guide…

Getting your recommended serves of grain foods looks like… a bowl of high fibre breakfast cereal in the morning, a wholemeal sandwich for lunch and a stir-fry with rice for dinner.

No matter how many serves you enjoy, you can easily make a difference to your health by increasing your whole grain intake by just one serve a day – this small increase can reduce risk of early death from cardiovascular disease by 9% and cancer by 5%(9).

The bottom line…

Carbohydrates are found in many foods and are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. Choosing quality carbohydrates most of the time will ensure we’re getting the fuel we need to keep up with our busy lives. Everyone can gain from the multiple health benefits quality carbohydrates offer, simply by adding one serve of whole grain to your day.

Enjoy core grain foods 3-4 times a day, making at least half either whole grain or high fibre.

We’ll be delving into the ins and outs of low carbohydrate diets in our next Hot Topic, so stay tuned for more! In the meantime, to find out more about the pros and cons of low carb diets, watch our webinar here.


  1. GLNC 2014 Consumption & Attitudes Study. Unpublished: 2014
  2. Fayet-Moore F, Petocz P, McConnell A, Tuck K, Mansour M. The Cross-Sectional Association between Consumption of the Recommended Five Food Group “Grain (Cereal)”, Dietary Fibre and Anthropometric Measures among Australian Adults. Nutrients. 2017;9(2):157.
  3. McRae MP. Health Benefits of Dietary Whole Grains: An Umbrella Review of Meta-analyses. J Chiropr Med. 2017;16(1):10-8.
  4. Fardet A, Boirie Y. Associations between food and beverage groups and major diet-related chronic diseases: an exhaustive review of pooled/meta-analyses and systematic reviews. Nutrition reviews. 2014;72(12):741-62.
  5. Zong G, Gao A, Hu FB, Sun Q. Whole Grain Intake and Mortality From All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: A Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Circulation. 2016;133(24):2370-80.
  6. Chen G-C, Tong X, Xu J-Y, Han S-F, Wan Z-X, Qin J-B, et al. Whole-grain intake and total, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies. The American journal of clinical nutrition. 2016.
  7. Benisi-Kohansal S, Saneei P, Salehi-Marzijarani M, Larijani B, Esmaillzadeh A. Whole-Grain Intake and Mortality from All Causes, Cardiovascular Disease, and Cancer: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. Advances in Nutrition: An International Review Journal. 2016;7(6):1052-65.
  8. Australian Health Survey: Nutrition First Results – Foods and Nutrients, 2011-12. Australian Bureau of Statistics; 2014.
  9. Jones JM, Peña RJ, Korczak R, Braun HJ. CIMMYT Series on Carbohydrates, Wheat, Grains, and Health: Carbohydrates, Grains, and Wheat in Nutrition and Health: Their Relation to Digestion, Digestive Disorders, Blood Glucose, and Inflammation. Cereal Foods World. 2016;61(1):4-17.
  10. Noto H, Goto A, Tsujimoto T, Noda M. Low-Carbohydrate Diets and All-Cause Mortality: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies. PloS one. 2013;8(1):e55030.

This post, Hot Topics: Carbohydrates, first appeared on the Grains & Legumes Nutirition Council website.

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