Carbohydrates for kids: Best sources and how much your child needs
When you think about kids and food, chances are carbohydrates, or carbs for short, come to mind. As abundant sources of energy, it’s no wonder many kids gravitate towards easy-to-like carbohydrate foods such as bread, pasta, and potatoes. This also means parents tend to have questions about how much and what kind of carbohydrates kids need. Keep reading to learn more about carbohydrates and how to best incorporate them into your child’s diet.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, the components of food that give us energy. Among the macronutrients, carbohydrates offer the quickest source of energy and are your body’s preferred source of energy. When carbohydrates are eaten, they enter the bloodstream directly to be taken up by cells all over the body to be used for energy or stored for later use.
There are a few different kinds of carbohydrates. They include simple carbs, complex carbs, and fiber.
Simple carbohydrates are single sugar molecules such as glucose, fructose, and lactose. They typically absorb into the bloodstream faster and are the easiest form of carbohydrate to digest. Simple carbs can provide quick energy to the body when needed.
Complex carbohydrates are carbohydrates made up of multiple sugar molecules and are often referred to as starches. They typically take longer to digest as they require more effort to break down in the body.
Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest and isn’t broken down into sugar molecules like simple or complex carbohydrates. Given its unique characteristic, fiber helps keep your digestive system functioning optimally.
Why carbohydrates are important for children
Carbohydrates are important for children because carbohydrates mean energy, and children need lots of energy to play, learn and grow. Carbohydrate-containing foods also have a variety of nutrients in them that promote optimal growth and development. For example, fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Carbohydrates provide both quick and stored energy in the body and are the preferred source of fuel, especially for the brain and central nervous system. In the absence of carbohydrates, the body may break down protein from muscles and other tissues or stored fat for energy. Additionally, some carbohydrate foods contain fiber which helps keep the digestive system functioning properly. For children who experience constipation, getting enough fiber (and water!) is especially important.
How much carbs should kids get?
It’s recommended children eat about 45 - 65% of their daily calorie intake from carbohydrates . This guideline is easy to meet and provides great nutrition if you include a high-quality carbohydrate source with most meals and snacks. As much as possible, think of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products when choosing carbs.
A note on sugar:
Many parents worry about sugar intake, especially when it comes to their kids. While sugar isn’t inherently bad on its own (it does provide energy) when consumed in excess, it can have detrimental side effects. While every family is different and should come up with a plan to deal with sugar on their own, here’s my best advice.
Try not to make a huge deal about sugar. The more it's put on a pedestal, the more your child will probably want it. Second, don’t sweat whole food sugar sources such as fruit or dairy products. Or even sweet foods like cookies or ice cream made with real sugar. In the context of a balanced diet, eating these foods in moderation isn’t really an issue.
Lastly, if you want to limit sugar, start with products where it doesn’t necessarily belong. Watch for added sugars in yogurt, granola bars, cereal, salad dressings, and pasta sauces. When possible, opt for these products to be sweetened naturally with fruit. If there isn’t an alternative available, choose products with the lowest amount of added sugar or buy a plain version and add your own sweetener.
Carbohydrate sources your child could eat
Many foods contain some amount of carbohydrates and typically children do not have an issue meeting the recommended daily carbohydrate intake. While all foods can fit into a balanced diet, it’s important to reach for high-quality carbohydrates as much as possible to help ensure your child is getting the nutrition they need. Some top options include:
All fruit contains carbohydrates, typically in the form of fructose, and are also a good source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals in the diet. Many kids enjoy fruit as it is, but you can also serve it in a smoothie, dried or baked.
Starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, corn, carrots, and regular potatoes are all sources of carbohydrates. Other veggies contain carbs as well, just not in as large of quantities. Make vegetables easier to enjoy by roasting them or serving them with a fun dip like hummus or ranch.
Dairy foods such as milk and yogurt provide carbohydrates in the form of lactose. When choosing flavored dairy products, choose products with the lowest amount of added sugar if possible. If your child doesn’t like these foods on their own, they can be mixed in a smoothie or used to make oatmeal.
Whole grains, as well as other grains, are sources of carbohydrates loved by many kiddos. These include breads, pastas, and crackers. When possible, choose whole grain to increase the fiber content.
Q: What are carbohydrates for babies?
Babies 6 months and younger will get all the carbohydrates they need from breastmilk and/or formula. Babies over 6 months, who have started eating solid foods, can enjoy a variety of carbohydrate foods. These include fruits, vegetables, yogurt, oatmeal, and other whole grains. Remember to serve them in a way that is suitable for your baby’s age.
Q: What are 3 simple carbohydrate foods?
There is an abundance of carbohydrate-containing foods. However, 3 simple and easy-to-eat carbohydrate foods are fruit, yogurt, and oatmeal.
Q: What's the healthiest carbohydrate?
There is not one single healthiest carbohydrate food. However, when it comes to carbohydrates, aim to eat them in their whole food form. For example, choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products to meet most of your carbohydrate needs.
Q: What happens if a child doesn't get enough carbohydrates?
If a child doesn’t get enough carbohydrates, they may feel fatigued, irritable, and have an overall lack of energy. They may also experience growth problems as carbohydrates provide the body with the largest and easiest-to-use form of energy.
Q: What is the best brain food for breakfast for kids?
The best brain food for breakfast for kids is a balanced meal that will keep them full through lunchtime. This should include a mix of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and fiber. Some examples include scrambled eggs with avocado and a slice of toast or a full-fat yogurt parfait made with fruit and chopped nuts.
Q: What is the carbohydrate source in most infant formula?
Infant formulas can vary quite a bit when it comes to carbohydrate sources, so it’s best to read the nutrition label for the particular formula you are interested in. Some of the common sources include corn syrup solids, lactose, maltodextrin, galactooligosaccharides, polydextrose, sugar, and glucose syrup. It’s worth noting formulas need a carbohydrate source so you shouldn’t be alarmed if you see sugar on the nutrition label.
Q: How many carbohydrates does a child need per day?
Children should get about 45 - 65% of their calories from carbohydrates a day. This means roughly half of their energy intake should be from carbohydrate-containing foods. This is fairly easy to do if you include a carbohydrate food in most meals and snacks. Aim to choose foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products most of the time.
Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, December 2020. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf