Complex Versus Simple Carbohydrates

simple carbohydrates complex carbohydrates

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Carbohydrates is such a complex topic (pun intended). They come in different forms, are digested at different rates, and are categorized according to different criteria. However, it does not need to be so complicated. Our previous blog, “Not all Carbs are Created Equal” demystified the different types of carbohydrates that are on a nutrition label (total carbs, fiber, total sugar, added sugar, and sugar alcohols). Today we are going to tackle a different way to categorize this macronutrient: complex versus simple carbohydrates.  These terms are tossed around in conversation and, for those of us who are trying to be our best, and healthiest selves, they can be confusing. We can read that complex carbohydrates are healthier than simple carbohydrates. However, nutrition labels do not do us the courtesy of differentiating between the two types of carbs. This article will help to identify the difference and make food selection healthier and more straightforward.

What are Complex Carbs? 

what are simple carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates is a term used to describe a carb that is composed of a long chain of sugar molecules. Specifically, three or more sugars (called oligosaccharides and polysaccharides) join together to make a complex carbohydrate. These types of carbs tend to have a high quantity of vitamins, minerals, and fiber per gram. Additionally, they take longer to digest. The slowed digestion means that they take longer to break down into simple sugars. This results in a slow and steady release of sugar into the bloodstream, making complex carbohydrates less likely to spike blood sugar when compared to refined carbohydrates. By stabilizing our blood sugar, we feel full for a longer period of time when we eat complex carbohydrates. This is great for individuals who are looking to lose weight, improve metabolic health, or enhance gut health.  Consuming whole and unprocessed foods like vegetables (broccoli, green beans, carrots, sweet potatoes), legumes (beans, lentils), and whole grains (quinoa and buckwheat), are great complex carbohydrate options.  In general, complex carbohydrates tend to have more potassium, fiber, magnesium, and selenium than simple carbs.  Two notable exceptions are white bread and white potatoes. Both of the aforementioned foods are complex carbs, however, they have mostly starch and very little fiber.

What are Simple Carbs? 

important nutrient

Simple carbohydrates are carbs that contain either one sugar (monosaccharides) or two sugars (disaccharides). Since their chemical structure is so simplistic, they can quickly be broken down into glucose and released into the bloodstream, resulting in a sharp increase in blood sugar levels. This prompts a release of insulin that can drop our blood sugar below normal, leaving us feeling hungry and craving food shortly after we eat. Over time, this repeated spike and fall in blood glucose can lead to weight gain.

Simple carbohydrates come in two forms, refined sugars and naturally occurring sugars. The first of which is unhealthy and includes sugars and starches that have been processed with their natural fiber and nutrients removed. Refined sugars are commonly found in baked goods and sugary sodas. These simple carbohydrates can be identified by the ingredients on a food label: glucose, fructose, sucrose, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, and brown sugar. Refined carbohydrates spike blood sugar, have very little nutritional value, and are not an ideal choice for our metabolic health.  When we consistently consume foods that are high in simple sugars, especially fructose, we can significantly increase our triglyceride levels.  Elevated triglyceride levels have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and fatty liver.

The second form of simple carbohydrates is found in healthy foods, like the naturally occurring sugars that are found in milk and fruit. These naturally occurring sugars often still contain the vitamins, minerals, and fibers that refined sugars lack.

Takeaway Recommendations 

simple vs complex carbs

Carbohydrates are made of three main components: fiber, starch, and sugar. Dietary fiber and starch are complex carbs while sugar is a simple carbohydrate. The ratio of fiber to starch to sugar within a food determines how the carbohydrate is digested and how our blood glucose responds. Complex carbohydrates and slower to be digested and absorbed into the bloodstream. Thus, they do not tend to dramatically spike our blood sugar. On the contrary, simple sugars have been refined and usually retain very little nutritional value.  Thus, by swapping out foods that contain a high amount of simple carbohydrates in favor of foods with complex carbohydrates, we can add fiber, potassium, magnesium, and selenium to our diets. This change in diet will also have us feeling full for longer and help us to stabilize our blood sugar.



Author: Dr. Colleen Gulick