The last few years have seen a boom in functional foods, including functional carbohydrates. You may have heard “functional” and wondered what it meant, as many foods on the market are now labeled with this term. Read on to learn more about functional carbs and why you should consider adding them to your diet.

What Are Functional Carbohydrates?

The term functional carbohydrates have primarily been used to refer to dietary fiber, functional polysaccharides, functional oligosaccharides, sugar alcohols, and other functional monosaccharides.

Functional carbohydrates are a key player in everything from weight management to inflammation control with many health benefits. They are often included in sports drinks, energy bars, and other food products because they supply energy quickly while helping to keep you feeling fuller longer. Additionally, functional carbohydrates have been shown to help improve blood sugar and reduce the risk of weight gain.

What Kinds of Carbs Are Considered Functional?

As a general rule, functional carbohydrates provide energy and help regulate blood sugar levels. They can come from whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and low-fat dairy products. Not all carbs are considered functional, however. Processed foods and sugary drinks are typically not good sources of these nutrients.

Health Benefits of Functional Carbohydrates

Eating foods high in complex carbs instead of simple sugars like sucrose (table sugar) will assist in maintaining a steady blood sugar level throughout the day so they don’t fluctuate too wildly. They do this by slowing down the rate at which food is released from the stomach into the small intestine (gastric emptying) and decreasing glucose absorption in the small intestine. This is usually associated with feelings of satiety (fullness).

A research study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that people who ate more functional carbs were more likely to have a lower body mass index (BMI). This was especially true for women who were overweight or obese. This could be associated with the ability of functional foods in reducing the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

The nutrients in foods with functional carbohydrates may also improve brain health and lower cholesterol levels (and reduce the risk of heart disease).

Functional carbohydrates may help reduce the risk of GERD or other digestive issues. They may also some dental benefits by enabling you to keep your teeth clean and healthy.

Ways to Include Functional Carbohydrates in Your Diet

Eat more fruits and vegetables: Eating fruit and vegetables is a great way to get more dietary fiber. Fiber can help you feel full and satisfied, making eating less frequently throughout the day easier. In addition, fruit and vegetables are also good sources of carbohydrates that provide energy for your body when you’re hungry or trying to lose weight.

Choose whole grains: Generally, whole grains are a good source of fiber and other nutrients that can help you feel full longer. They’re also rich in B vitamins, iron, and magnesium (which are suitable for bone health). Whole grains contain many more calories than refined carbohydrates because they contain more vitamins, minerals, and protein than refined carbs. So, if you want to eat less while still getting enough energy from your meals or snacks—or want to lose weight—you might consider incorporating more whole-grain foods into your diet.

Limit your intake of fiber supplements: While you may be tempted to down a fiber supplement, it’s not as effective as whole foods.  

Increase your consumption of beans, peas, and lentils: Beans, peas, and lentils are some of the most nutritional and accessible foods. Typically, they have minimal fat content and high folate, potassium, iron, and magnesium levels. They also include fiber and beneficial lipids.

Cut back on added sugars: In moderation, added sugar is probably not detrimental. However, having a significant amount of added sugar, such as cookies and pastries, has no health benefits. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that fewer than 10% of your daily calories should come from added sugar. Additionally, consuming too many sugar-containing products or beverages can result in you taking in more calories daily than you require.

The bottom line is that functional carbohydrates are an essential part of a healthy diet. You have heard the saying, “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”. This is true for many other fruits and vegetables. Eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables to reap the benefits and more.

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Courtney Simons
Courtney Simons
Author, Dr. Courtney Simons has a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and a Ph. D. in Cereal Science from North Dakota State University.