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The hierarchy of carbohydrates: Ranked from best to worst


Carbohydrates have long gotten a bad rap thanks to diet culture. It’s probably the most controversial and confusing element of the human diet. Should you eat them? Should you cut them? Which ones should you or shouldn’t you eat? These are just some of the questions you may be asking.

But not all carbohydrates are created equal. So, we’ve done the work and put together a useful guide to break down what carbohydrates are and rank them in order of importance. Let’s dive in!

What are carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates, as well as fats and proteins, are the macronutrients that provide the body with energy and ensure the body's basic functions are maintained.

And despite all the controversy, carbohydrates are the body's main fuel source and are vital to a healthy diet. When you consume foods containing carbs, your digestive system gets to work breaking them down and converting them into glucose, which your cells then use for energy.1 More energy means more gas in the tank to crush your workout!

But as mentioned above, not all carbohydrates are created equal. The term “carbohydrate" is more of an umbrella term for various foods that appear in the human diet. And although they’re found in both healthy and not-so-healthy foods, it’s the quality of the carbohydrate that’s important. Some carbs are better for you than others, and that’s what we’ll be exploring next.

The hierarchy of carbohydrates

To simplify which carbs are better than others, you can follow this hierarchy of carbohydrates. Foods from the top four categories in this list are healthier options and are the ones you should be filling your plate with, while those towards the bottom should, ideally, be limited. But remember, balance is key so nothing is off limits!


Top tips for adding carbohydrates to your diet

Now you have a clearer understanding of which carbohydrates deliver that extra nutrient boost and which you should limit, here are our top tips for getting the biggest bang for your carb-y buck.

Carbohydrates are fuel, not the enemy

It can’t be said enough – not all carbs are bad. Your body needs those quick digestible carbs to fuel a tough training session or HIIT workout. Instead of eliminating this macro powerhouse, try swapping or adding, not subtracting. Fill up on veggies and whole grains, and if you really want to limit carbs, focus on swapping out unhealthy options like refined grains and foods with added sugars overall.

If you're working out, carbohydrates are even more essential. Looking to Squat a PB? PR in a race? Carbohydrates are your body's goldmine of energy. Incorporate high-quality carbs like green leafy vegetables, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains and watch your performance soar.

Reduce your intake of processed carbs

While we all love a good pizza night, on the whole, processed or simple carbohydrates are the types you want to avoid or limit. They usually contain refined grains stripped of their goodness, including fiber and nutrients, or added sugars.

These carbohydrates are effectively empty calories which cause a rapid spike in your blood glucose levels and an exaggerated increase in circulating insulin levels.2 Some research suggests a high consumption of refined carbs increases your risk of type 2 diabetes.3

Focus on complex carbs

The key to eating healthier is where you place your focus. And when it comes to carbs, rather than fixating on what you should avoid, channel that energy into all the mouth-watering carbs you can indulge in that'll help you feel and perform better. Yes, we’re talking about you, complex carbs.

Complex carbs pack a more nutrient-dense punch because they’re rich in fiber and are digested more slowly. As a result, they are great for weight control and managing your blood sugar levels efficiently.

Choose foods from the following groups on the carbohydrate hierarchy:

  • Green leafy vegetables
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Whole grains/starches

Top tip: If you’re looking for a carb-heavy pre-or post-workout snack, bananas are king. Not only are they high in fiber and easy to digest, but bananas are packed with fast-acting carbs and potassium, essential for nerve and muscle function.

Add veggies to every meal

Looking to up your complex carb game? Try adding vegetables to every meal. In addition to the benefits of complex carbohydrates mentioned above, a diet rich in fruits and vegetables also reduces your risk of chronic illnesses, including:

  • Heart disease
  • Some cancers
  • Digestive issues
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity4

You should aim to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, but a study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health found that eating at least seven daily portions lowered the risk of dying from any cause by 42% compared to 29% for three to five portions.5

Vegetables were found to have the most powerful protective benefits. The same study found that each daily portion of vegetables eaten reduced the overall risk of death by 16%. Ultimately, that means the more vegetables you can eat, the healthier you will be. Did someone say, “pass the broccoli?”.

How many carbohydrates do I need to eat?

We’ve broken down which carbohydrates you should eat and why, but how many should you consume each day for health?

It's simple: the more active you are, the more carbohydrates you'll need. Carbohydrates are your body’s main energy source. If you’re a go-go-go person, you’ll have a higher energy requirement, so the more carbs you’ll need.

Think of it like putting fuel in a car: the longer your journey, the more fuel you’ll need to reach your destination. And ain’t no one got time for an empty tank.

How many carbs should I eat depending on my activity levels?

A simple rule to follow to make sure you’re eating the right amount of carbohydrates for your activity level is to eat:

  • 4 g/kg (or 1.8 g/lb) of carbohydrates per day or a maximum of a full fist-sized portion with each meal

If you are very inactive:

  • Reduce this amount by 25%, so 3 g/kg per day

If you are very active:

  • Increase this amount by 25%, so 5 g/kg per day

Let’s recap:

When it comes to diet and health, carbohydrates are not the enemy. Quite the contrary - they should be your training BFF (best friend forever). Rather than cutting carbs, focus on swapping, adding, and simply opting for high-quality foods that deliver that nutrient-dense punch. Utilize the hierarchy of carbohydrates to understand which foods you should fill up on and which you should try to limit.

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[1] Holesh, J.E., Aslam, S. and Martin, A. (2023) Physiology, carbohydrates - statpearls - NCBI bookshelf, National Library of Medicine. Available at: (Accessed: 28 December 2023).

[2] Bradley, P. (2019) ‘Refined carbohydrates, phenotypic plasticity and the obesity epidemic’, Medical Hypotheses, 131, p. 109317. doi:10.1016/j.mehy.2019.109317.

[3] Gross, L. S., Li, L., Ford, E. S., & Liu, S. (2004). Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States: an ecologic assessment. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 79(5), 774–779.

[4] Vegetables and fruits (2021) The Nutrition Source. Available at: (Accessed: 02 January 2024).