The nutritional value of carbohydrates, both positive and negative, has been debated for years. What often gets lost in the debate is that not all carbohydrates, ‘carbs’ for short, are created equal. Knowing the qualities of different types of carbohydrate foods will guide you to healthy and balanced choices.

Food and nutrition have been recognized as building blocks of good health as early as 400 B.C. when Greek physician, Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”

What is a carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates are your main energy source and can be easily changed from food to energy in your body. This is why you feel a ‘sugar rush’ or a burst of energy when eating something sweet.

Carbohydrates are one of the 3 types of nutrients that give us calories (energy). The other two are proteins and fats. We need all three to survive.

However, when you eat too many carbs, they are quickly stored as fat in your body for long-term energy. This is one of the reasons some people avoid carbs. Portion control is important when eating carbs, since they are stored as fat in your body.

Examples of a 1-serving of carbohydrates:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1 6-inch tortilla
  • ½ cup of cooked grains, rice, pasta, beans, corn, or peas
  • ½ cup of rice or pasta
  • 1 medium sized fruit (apple, orange, peach, or tomato)
  • ½ cup of starchy vegetables or ½ a regular potato
  • 4 ounces (½ cup) of fruit juice or beverage with sugar
  • 4 ounces (½ cup) ice cream

We find carbs in almost all foods:

  • Grains: wheat, barley, quinoa, bread, pasta, crackers
  • Oats: oatmeal
  • Rice: white, brown, basmati, jasmine
  • Beans and legumes
  • Seeds and nuts
  • All fruits
  • Starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, beets, carrots
  • Dairy: milk, yogurt, cheese, ice cream
  • Other: tomato sauce, pasta sauce, alfredo sauce, ketchup, some salad dressings
  • Sugar
  • Sweets: candy, chocolate, pastries, cookies, pies, and cakes
  • Beverages: regular soda, sweet tea, lemonade, beer, wine
  • Snacks: potato chips, pretzels, popcorn

This is not a 100% complete list of foods with carbs. The best way to know what is in your food is to read the nutrition label on packaged foods.

Types of carbs:

Choosing whole grain products are a good choice if you have chronic kidney disease. These types of carbs are full of nutrients and are part of eating well-balanced.

If you are on dialysis, work with your dialysis dietitian for help choosing the carbs that best suit your needs.

Here is what to look for:

  • Foods that have the ‘WHOLE GRAIN’ stamp
  • Foods that say “Made with 100% whole grains”. Beware of labels that just say “Made with whole grains.” These products might actually have very few whole grains.
  • Foods that have “Whole” listed as the first ingredient. For example:
    • Whole wheat
    • Whole (any type of grain)
    • Stoneground whole wheat
    • Stoneground whole (any type of grain)
    • Brown rice
    • Oats: oats or oatmeal (old fashioned rolled oats, instant oatmeal – but be careful of added phosphorus!)
    • Wheat berries

Try to limit foods that have ‘refined’ or ‘enriched’ grains in the ingredient list. Avoid or limit foods with these listed at the top of the ingredient list. For example:

  • Refined (any type of grain)
  • Enriched (any type of grain)
  • White flour
  • White rice
  • De-germed cornmeal

Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and dairy:   

Carbohydrates are not only found in breads, grains, pastas, and other products made with flours and rice. Carbs are also found in fruits, vegetables, and dairy. These carbohydrates have a variety of vitamins, minerals, and fiber and are an important part of eating well-balanced.

If you are on dialysis, you need to watch how much potassium you eat. Fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and dairy are high in potassium. There are, however, many good fruit and vegetable (excluding beans, nut and dairy) options that are low in potassium. Check out our potassium food guide for more information.

High carbohydrate vegetables are better eaten every now and then instead of every day. These vegetables can be higher in calories and lead to unwanted weight gain.

The most common of these “starchy” vegetables are:

  • Potatoes (very high in potassium)
  • Corn
  • Peas