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a cupboard full of vintage canned salmon

Students discover that lean protein and complex carbohydrates are good choices to fuel their bodies with energy.

In this lesson, students build scientific models to help them conceptualize the energy (calorie) to nutrient ratio provided by various types of carbohydrates, thereby discovering complex carbohydrates and lean protein as being the superior choices.

Learning outcomes

Students will:

  • Utilize the information on bread nutrition labels to make decisions about the nutritional value
  • Distinguish between healthy and unhealthy eating patterns
  • Collect, organize, analyze, and display data
  • Solve problems by comparing two sets of related data about the nutritional value of wheat breads
  • Discuss how foods provide both energy and nutrients for living organisms
  • Identify starches and sugars as carbohydrates
  • Determine that foods are made up of a variety of components
  • Use spreadsheets and graphs to organize, calculate, and display data

Teacher planning

Time required

Two days, 60 minutes a day

Materials needed

  • Chart paper
  • Chart markers
  • Construction paper or one box of paper clips for each pair of students (colored paper clips may be used)
  • Models of carbohydrates
  • A lean protein food
  • A fatty protein food
  • Index cards (4 × 6 or larger)

Student handouts

Healthy and unhealthy foods data sheet
Open as PDF (67 KB, 1 page)
Bread nutrition labels
Open as PDF (49 KB, 1 page)

Technology resources

Optional: Computers with graphing software, LCD projector, and printers


  • Gather all materials and have them separated for each pair of students.
  • Optional: Word studies on words ending in –ose (sugar words) may be done.


  1. Review with students the information and critical vocabulary learned in previous activities or relevant background knowledge. Next, set a purpose for learning by having students answer the QOD. Discuss and make mental notes of misconceptions. Be sure to address these during the lesson.
  2. Remind students that carbohydrates are a “go” nutrient and the body’s favorite source of energy.
  3. Then prepare them for a content blast! Present and discuss appropriate information provided in the Supplemental Information section.
  4. Remind students about nutritional density and calories as a measure of potential energy. Tell them that some carbohydrates are better than others because the more nutrients, the better. They will prove this by making a graphical display or model of nutritional density.
  5. Give a pair of students a box of paper clips or at least 20 paper strips, two nutrition labels, and a data sheet.
  6. Write and say, “One paper clip equals one unit of protein, fat, carbohydrates and certain vitamins and minerals.” Guide students in completing step A of the data sheet to build expressions of the nutritional contents of each food.
  7. Next, facilitate students in make paper clip/strip chains of each nutrient. Do not link the chains together. If colored paper clips/strips are used, guide students in creating a key for the nutrient chains.
  8. For each food, students will write the name of the food on an index card, as well as serving size in cups or ounces as listed on the label. They will place an F, a C, a P, a V, and an M at regular intervals along the bottom of the index card. The students will attach the paper clip chains on the index card under the appropriate letter and attach the nutrition label to other side of the index card.
    Sample index card
    Open as PDF (31 KB, 1 page)

  9. At this point, students should create a table, chart, or graph that organizes and displays their information. Optional: Students can also graph the results using a spreadsheet application.
  10. Students will observe the graphs and draw conclusions as to the predominant nutrient, nutrient variety, density, as well as pros and cons. Students should determine which food is nutritionally superior.
  11. Explain to students that one of the foods is a simple carbohydrate and one is complex. Ask, “Which one is the simple carbohydrate? What evidence do you have?” Make note of student responses.
  12. Ask, “Which is complex? What is your evidence?” Again, make note of student responses.
  13. Show students other comparisons and emphasize carbohydrates being sugar and starches. Review pros and cons of both. Help students to determine the effects of eating one versus another on the body.
  14. Optional: To set a purpose for learning, have students record questions they may have developed as a result of the activity.
  15. To close direct students back to these essential questions and the QOD.
    • Are you on a diet? How do you know?
    • What is nutrition?
    • What is in food anyways?
    • How do living things get energy and nutrients?
    • How can you make sure you are getting what you need?
    • How much am I supposed to eat?
    • What happens when you eat too much or not enough?
    • What does it mean to be a healthy eater?
    • What’s the difference between healthy and unhealthy food?
  16. Have a short closing discussion to review essential understandings for this activity and add student ideas to the chart paper.
  17. Optional: On Day two, divide the class into two teams. Each team will be split into student pairs. Each pair will carry out the same procedure but this time comparing good and bad sources of protein (e.g., turkey breast vs. bacon) to conclude that low-fat protein foods are best. The class should follow the usual procedure of discussing and responding to essential questions and the QOD.
  18. In Day two, conduct assessment activities.


  • Students should record an answer to the QOD in their science notebooks which correctly applies essential understanding of the activity.
  • Evaluate student responses during discussions and essential questions.


  • Students can independently compare two other foods (a chocolate bar and a fruit are good comparison foods) using the same procedure.
  • Students can conduct chemical tests to confirm predictions on foods they’ve deemed to be carbohydrates.
  • Have students create a guide for choosing healthy versus unhealthy foods.
  • Instead of doing content blasts, have students read books or articles to discover and share the information.
  • Food comparisons, collages, and T-charts can include explanations of logic and reasoning at various levels of specificity.
  • Comparison of carbohydrates and proteins can be done simultaneously. Simply assign protein foods to some pairs and carbohydrates to others.

Alternative assessments

  • Students may complete a collage or t-chart showing foods that are simple carbohydrates and foods that are complex carbohydrates and/or lean proteins to fatty proteins.
  • Students could write compare and contrast essays.

Supplemental information

The worst sources of protein

(percent of protein - percent of fat)

  • Hot dog 14-83
  • Bologna 15-81
  • Pork sausage 22-77
  • Bacon 21-78
  • Salami 23-75
  • Beef ribs 26-74
  • Pork ribs 27-73
  • Eggs 34-62
  • Chicken thing 36-63
  • Ham lunch meat 39-54
  • Pork Shoulder 45-55

Source: USDA

The best sources of protein

(percent of protein - percent of fat)

  • Skinless turkey breast 94-5
  • Shrimp 90-10
  • Orange roughy 90-10
  • Pollock 90-10, Lobster 89-5
  • Red snapper 87-13
  • Dungeness crab 86-10
  • Buffalo 84-16
  • Venison 81-19
  • Halibut 80-20
  • Clams 73-12
  • Lean pork tenderloin 72-28
  • Veal 68-32
  • Chicken liver 65-32
  • Lean beef flank steak 62-38
  • Salmon 62-38

Source: USDA


Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. They make up the largest portion of our diet. They are taken in the form of all foods made up of grain flour, cereals, pasta, potatoes and other vegetables, and also in the form of sugars contained in fruits, syrups, honey and candy, as well as in the pure crystalline form of our familiar table sugar.

Carbohydrate is the element in our food which:

  • supplies the energy for the body’s automatic activity and for the performance of our daily tasks. The more physical work we perform daily, the more carbohydrates we must proportionately consume.
  • plays a vital part in the digestion, assimilation (metabolism) and oxidation of protein and fat. If we take in more carbohydrate of any kind than is needed for immediate use the unused portion is stored in the liver or converted into fat and deposited in the tissues for future use.

Most carbohydrates come from foods of plant origin. The major simple carbohydrates or sugars are glucose, maltose, fructose, and sucrose which come from plants. Lactose is found in milk.

We generally think of grains (bread and cereal group) as the only source of carbohydrates. In reality carbohydrates come from many other sources that also give us other essential nutrients. Carbohydrates come mainly from plant sources, although milk and many milk products contain some carbohydrates in the form of lactose.

Simple carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are quick energy sources, but they do not usually supply any other nutrients or fiber.

The major kind of simple sugar. Glucose is the basic source of energy for all living things. Glucose supplies the body with quick energy. It occurs naturally in some fruits and vegetables and is also produced in the body by breaking down other foods into glucose. Sometimes known as blood sugar, sometimes as grape sugar. Nearly all plant foods contain glucose.
Commonly known as table sugar, beet sugar, or cane sugar. Sucrose occurs in many fruits and some vegetables.
Known as fruit sugar. Most plants contain fructose, especially fruits and saps.
Known as malt sugar. Found in grains.
Commonly known as milk sugar. It is the principal carbohydrate found in milk.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates often supply energy and other nutrients and fiber that the body needs. They are a better choice.


Starch in the body breaks down into simple sugars. The body has to break down all sugar/starch into glucose to use it. Starch supplies the body with long, sustained energy.

All starchy foods are plant foods. Seeds are the richest source; 70 percent of their weight is starch. Many human societies have a staple grain from which their people derive their food energy. In Canada, the United States, and Europe the staple grain is wheat. Rice is the staple grain of the Orient. Corn is the staple grain of much of South America and the southern United States. The staple grains of other peoples include millet, rye, barley, and oats. In each society a bread, meal, or flour is made from the grain and is then used for many purposes. These staple foods are the major source of food energy for people of the world. They support human activity and energy.

The second important source of starch is the bean and pea family. These include dry beans found at your local supermarket such as lima beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and soybeans. These vegetables are about 40 percent starch by weight and also contain a substantial amount of protein.

The third major source of starch is the tubers, such as the potato, yam, and cassava. These serve as the primary starch sources in many non-Western societies.

Dietary fiber

Dietary fiber is found in plant cells. Because it is tough and stringy, it does not break down completely in the body. Fiber is essential for regulating the body. It is the non-digestible part of plants.

Important sources of carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates

Sugar: white bread, fruit, white rice, bleached & enriched flour, fruit juice, table sugar, honey, soft drinks, and other sweets

Complex carbohydrates

Starch: whole grain breads, cereal, potatoes, pasta, rice, and legumes (dried peas and beans)

Fiber: bran, whole-grain foods, raw vegetables and fruit (especially the seeds and skins), legumes, nuts, seeds and popcorn, brown rice

Critical vocabulary

  • carbohydrate
  • protein
  • simple
  • complex
  • sugar
  • starch
  • fiber
  • legume
  • pasta
  • cereal
  • whole grains
  • non-digestible
  • lean

  • North Carolina Essential Standards
    • Healthful Living (2010)
      • Grade 4

        • 4.NPA.1 Apply tools (MyPyramid, Food Facts Label) to plan healthy nutrition and fitness. 4.NPA.1.1 Plan meals using My Pyramid. 4.NPA.1.2 Carry out measures to prevent food borne illness, including hand washing and appropriate food storage and preparation....
        • 4.NPA.2 Understand the importance of consuming a variety of nutrient dense foods and beverages in moderation. 4.NPA.2.1 Compare unhealthy and healthy eating patterns, including eating in moderation. 4.NPA.2.2 Explain the effects of eating healthy and unhealthy...
      • Information and Technology Skills (2010)
        • 4.TT.1 Use technology tools and skills to reinforce classroom concepts and activities. 4.TT.1.1 Use a variety of technology tools to gather data and information (e.g., Web-based resources, e-books, online communication tools, etc.). 4.TT.1.2 Use a variety...

      • Science (2010)
        • 4.L.2 Understand food and the benefits of vitamins, minerals and exercise. 4.L.2.1 Classify substances as food or non-food items based on their ability to provide energy and materials for survival, growth and repair of the body. 4.L.2.2 Explain the role of...

North Carolina curriculum alignment

Computer Technology Skills (2005)

Grade 4

  • Goal 2: The learner will demonstrate knowledge and skills in the use of computer and other technologies.
    • Objective 2.05: Use spreadsheets and graphs to organize, calculate, and display data in content areas. Strand - Spreadsheet
  • Goal 3: The learner will use a variety of technologies to access, analyze, interpret, synthesize, apply, and communicate information.
    • Objective 3.05: Use spreadsheet data and graphs to make predictions, solve problems, and make decisions in content areas as a class/group. Strand - Spreadsheet

Healthful Living Education (2006)

Grade 4

  • Goal 4: The learner will apply knowledge and behavior self management skills to areas of nutrition and physical activity for healthy growth, development, and maintenance.
    • Objective 4.03: Utilize the basic information on food labels to make decisions about the nutritional value of various foods.
    • Objective 4.06: Distinguish between healthy and unhealthy eating patterns.

Mathematics (2004)

Grade 4

  • Goal 4: Data Analysis and Probability - The learner will understand and use graphs, probability, and data analysis.
    • Objective 4.01: Collect, organize, analyze, and display data (including line graphs and bar graphs) to solve problems.
    • Objective 4.03: Solve problems by comparing two sets of related data.
  • Goal 5: Algebra - The learner will demonstrate an understanding of mathematical relationships.
    • Objective 5.02: Translate among symbolic, numeric, verbal, and pictorial representations of number relationships.
    • Objective 5.03: Verify mathematical relationships using:
      • Models, words, and numbers.
      • Order of operations and the identity, commutative, associative, and distributive properties.

Science (2005)

Grade 4

  • Goal 4: The learner will conduct investigations and use appropriate technology to build an understanding of how food provides energy and materials for growth and repair of the body.
    • Objective 4.03: Discuss how foods provide both energy and nutrients for living organisms.
    • Objective 4.04: Identify starches and sugars as carbohydrates.
    • Objective 4.05: Determine that foods are made up of a variety of components.