A Breakdown of Macronutrients: Carbohydrates

What Are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates (often called “carbs”), provide energy for all cells in the body. They are found in a variety of different foods including bread, pasta, rice, cereal, starchy vegetables (like potatoes and corn), desserts, and soft drinks.

Carbohydrates fall into two main groups:

  • Minimally/unprocessed carbs (also called “complex carbs”)

  • Highly processed or refined carbs (also known as “simple carbs”)

When it comes to carbs, the goal is to not avoid them altogether. Instead, choose minimally/unprocessed carbs whenever possible and eat fewer refined carbs. Eating minimally/unprocessed carbs in place of refined carbs provides more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients to support your overall health.

What Carbohydrates Should I Eat?

The chart below lists examples of foods in each category. Minimally/unprocessed carbs are on the left and more processed/refined carbs are on the right. As often as possible, choose foods from the left-hand column (minimally/unprocessed carbs) instead of the right-hand column (higher processed/refined carbs).

Choose Mostly This Column

Eat Less from This Column

Whole grains - brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, farro, bulgar, barley, spelt, millet

White pasta, couscous, white rice

100% whole wheat bread (or 100% other grain such as rye)

White bread

Steel cut or old-fashioned oats

Instant oatmeal

Breakfast cereals with 4+ grams of fiber per serving and < 6 grams of added sugar

Breakfast cereal (hot or cold) with < 4 grams of fiber and more than 6 grams of added sugar

Non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower

White potatoes

Homemade desserts using less added sugar and 100% whole grain flours

Doughnuts, pastries, packaged cookies

Beans, chickpeas, lentils


Good to Know

The amount of carbs to include is roughly ¼ of your plate at each meal. This Healthy Eating Plate Model pictures carbohydrates and reiterates that the kind of carbohydrate you choose is as important as the amount you eat.

To schedule a nutrition visit and/or learn more about one-on-one and group nutrition programs, speak with a nurse. They will get you connected with a member of our nutrition team. Our goal is to meet you where you’re at with the resources and up-to-date facts you need to make confident, informed choices about eating well during cancer.