The Difference Between Complex & Simple Carbs

Carbs get a bad rap. Usually the first thing people want to do is cut back on carbs or eliminate them completely in order to lose weight or "become healthier." Several people come to me saying they're already on or have been on a low/no carb diet. I don't necessarily like to tell people what they're doing is "wrong," but I do see the importance in proper education - and that includes informing people about what carbs are, why we need them, and what types of carb-based foods are actually good for us to eat. 

Let's start with what carbs are - carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients we all need to not only survive, but thrive (fat and protein are the other two). Carbs are also everyone's MAIN SOURCE OF ENERGY, whether they are complex or simple. To further break down carbs (literally), they are sugars, starches, and fiber. Complex carbs are made up of sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains. Complex carbs are found in foods like beans, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. They also provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber which are all things our bodies need. Simple carbs are processed and/or refined sugars which provide little to no nutritional value, but can also be very addictive (part of the reason carbs get a bad rap). You'll find simple carbs in foods like cakes, cookies, chips, crackers, soda and anything with white flour in it.   

While it is true that our body cannot distinguish the difference between complex or simple carbs initially, it is able to use the properties of each differently and therein lies the key. As mentioned previously, complex carbs have vitamins, minerals, fiber, and many other great nutritional benefits (ex: antioxidants). These are all vital for the health of our bodies and, specifically, fiber aids in the slowing down of our digestion of carbs so our blood sugar is not going to spike nearly as much as it would with simple carbs. 

 So why do we need them and why do they have such a bad reputation? We need them in order to have energy to live; energy to keep our organs functioning, energy to move around, energy to for EVERYTHING WE DO! And, if we keep our carb intake in check, they will do exactly what they are supposed to do. It is when we go overboard or focus mostly on simple carbs that we find ourselves in trouble. We can become lethargic, experience blood sugar spikes (which can cause us to feel hungrier faster), and also pack on the pounds as a result of all of this.

If you want to make smart carb choices, what should you eat specifically? Stick with fruit, vegetables, grains, and nuts to give you some examples. Other options include barley, brown rice, and lentils. Some veggies that are better to eat include spinach, onion, zucchini, carrots, and okra. Some fruits that are better to eat include apples, grapefruit, pears, oranges, and tomatoes. Now, it is even easier to also find complex carbs in cereals, pastas, whole grain bread and oatmeal. However, beware of the foods that have refined, white flour in them. These foods have been stripped of their outer most layer which is where the fiber is. 

Hopefully, this post serves to educate you on the difference between complex and simple carbs while also re-assuring you that carbs are not the enemy. We need them; we just need to know which ones to focus on and how much is too much. That's really where a nutritionist (like myself for instance) can come in handy. Nutritionists should, at the least, be able to calculate your body fat percentage and, based off of that along with your weight, height, sex can tell you how many grams of macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) your body needs.   

Mariah Fink

Fitness Integrated with Nutrition Knowledge, 8507 McCullough, Suite C-33, San Antonio, TX, 78216

Fitness Integrated with Nutrition Knowledge
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