Complex Carbs vs Simple Carbs: An Ultimate Guide

There are two types of carbohydrates: complex carbs vs simple carbs. Here’s everything you need to know about the two and which type is better.

A proper diet is the foundation of a healthy body and mind, and the single most effective weapon against disease and sickness. Paying attention to your nutritional intake will improve all aspects of your life. A positive diet can do things you would never even expect, like help with your sleep, energy, alertness, and even wound healing.

One of the most buzz-worthy and controversial aspects of our nutrition is our intake of carbohydrates. More specifically, our intake of complex carbs vs simple carbs. There is so much debate over whether carbs are good or not, and how much we should be consuming. Let’s first explore the world of carbohydrates and what they mean for your diet.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are a biomolecule consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, hence its chemical name of “carbohydrate.” Usually, the hydrogen to oxygen ratio is 1-2 but this can vary depending on the type of carb or food. Carbs are macronutrients that give our bodies 4 calories per gram, and some of the most common examples are starch, sugar, and fiber.

The primary purpose of carbohydrates is to provide your body with glucose, which is then converted into energy for physical activity and everyday functions. Carbs are necessary for your body to function normally, and they can make or break a healthy diet. However, not all carbs are equal. Just because a food is high in carbs doesn’t mean it’s healthy. In fact, it can quite often be the opposite.

White bread and sodas are both rich in carbs, and these are both examples of unhealthy foods. On the other hand, carrots and broccoli are rich in carbs, and these nutritious foods can work wonders. When it comes to carbs, it’s all about quality over quantity.

There are two (2) types of carbohydrates: simple carbs and complex carbs. When you become conscious of these two types of carbs, you’ll easily see the difference between a poor diet and a great diet.

What are Complex Carbs?

Complex carbs are, like the name suggests, complex sugar molecules strung together with various components. To be considered a complex carb, its molecules must consist of at least three polysaccharides. Because of the extra components, complex carbs take longer for your body to absorb and digest, which means it takes longer to go through the digestive tract. This in turn keeps you feeling more full for longer, preventing the energy crash associated with sugary foods. This can be useful for weight loss and for those who struggle with portion control.

Complex carbs are commonly found in peas, beans, sweet potatoes, and tons of other fruits and vegetables. They are usually accompanied by more nutrients than simple carbs. These nutrients include things like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other antioxidants. These components are usually missing from simple carbs, which tend to provide lots of sugar without any other useful nutrients.

What are Simple Carbs? 

Simple carbs are basically just sugars. These are found in sodas, baked goods, pastries, packaged snacks, and other artificially-sweetened things. Sometimes they occur naturally in milk or dairy products, but for the most part, simple carbs are just sugars added to foods.

Their molecules contain only one or two sugars, like galactose (in dairy products), and fructose (in fruits). These types of sugars are called monosaccharides. Also known as simple sugars, these monosaccharides are often made in processed or refined sugars, and they don’t contain any vitamins, fiber, or minerals. The simplicity (and sweetness) of simple carbs makes it very easy for your body to consume and digest, but leaves you with a notable energy crash when you finish digesting them. This energy crash is usually accompanied by a sharp drop in blood sugar levels.

Because of the lack of nutrients and this quick drop in energy, these carbs are often referred to as “hollow” or “empty” calories, which can cause us to gain weight.

Which One is Better: Complex Carbs or Simple Carbs?

Complex carbs vs Simple carbs? Who’s the winner?

Indulging in a chocolate bar or a soda every once in a while isn’t going to kill you, but your body really doesn’t need it. Generally speaking, you should always opt for complex carbs over simple carbs whenever you can.

Complex carbs are always going to have more vitamins, fiber, minerals, and other nutrients than foods rich in simple carbs. They will make you feel better because of the way your body digests them and will help you avoid any unnecessary sugars that are harmful to cardiovascular health.

Complex carbs are often chock full of soluble fiber, like the ones found in oats or apples. These types of carbs can lower your bad cholesterol and also keep your digestion nice and steady.

Your body digests complex carbs in a way that provides you with a slow release of energy, plus a huge boost in nutrients. In contrast, simple carbs provide you with a sharp boost in energy with no nutrients, and then a sharp decline in energy or a “sugar crash”. We’ll leave it up to you to decide which one you want.

The long-term effects of a diet without simple carbs and plenty of complex carbs is linked to the prevention of diabetes, cardiovascular issues, and weight gain. In addition, a complex-carb-heavy diet boosts respiratory health, improves mood regulation, and provides a myriad of other benefits.

Best Examples of Complex Carbs

Some of the most common, readily available sources of complex carbs are grain-based foods like oats, brown rice, 100% whole grain bread, 100% whole grain pasta, lentils, beans, barley, and quinoa.

The best starchy complex carbs are yams, sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkins, and beets.

Fruits rich in complex carbs include mango, apples, grapefruit, oranges, bananas, peaches, blueberries, grapes, strawberries, bananas, acai, pears, blackberries, and pineapple. Whenever your sweet tooth starts acting up, grab some fruit instead of a candy bar.

Complex carbs can also be easily obtained in many of nature’s fibrous vegetables, like broccoli, spinach, arugula, asparagus, cucumbers, kale, green beans, zucchini, green and red peppers, onions, carrots, peas, tomatoes, and cauliflower.

As you can see, the complex carbs your body needs are very plentiful and easy to find. There are tons of culinary options out there. It’s just a matter of choice and consciousness to actually seek them out and eat them.

Simple Carbs to Avoid

Once you get the hang of it, avoiding simple carbs will be pretty easy.  Some foods have a reasonable mix of simple and complex carbs, while others are completely packed with only simple carbs. A rule of thumb for avoiding simple carbs is to steer clear of processed, refined, or anything that can’t be directly taken from a farm. If food falls into either of these categories, then its always going to be high in simple carbs.

Some classic examples of simple carbs to avoid are:

Sodas: Sodas are just a rush of sugar and hollow calories. If you’re craving a cold, sweet drink, opt for a bit of fruit juice so you can get some more nutritious carbs and a nice dose of vitamins.

Candy bars/packaged snacks: Aside from usually being packed with additives and chemicals, candy bars also give you a short boost of energy, a sharp crash, and no nutritional benefits. Exceptions can be made for some fruit/oat-based snack bars.

Pastries: If you’re having trouble waking up or staying alert in the morning, consider what your breakfast or morning snack is. People love eating croissants, cinnamon buns, and muffins with their coffee in the morning, so it’s no wonder they get sleepy around 10 or 11 am. These types of foods are ostensibly just desserts that provide a short sugar rush followed by a crash shortly after. If you enjoy a sugar rush in the morning, have some fruit with oatmeal or yogurt, or have a glass of juice.

Conclusion

When it comes to adding carbs to your diet, it can be confusing to figure out what foods to choose in regards to complex carbs vs simple carbs. Thankfully, unless you’re an athlete on a specific diet or someone with a certain condition, you can generally keep a few simple factors in mind.

Firstly, complex carbs in the foods mentioned above are the only carbs you should be having. We all need carbs to function properly, so find ways to replace the simple carbs in your diet with complex carbs. Instead of soda, have juice. Instead of white bread, have whole grain. Instead of an almond croissant from Starbucks in the morning, just have an apple. These types of decisions will add up and have a positive effect on so many different aspects of your health, and improve your quality of life.

Secondly, it’s important to remember that complex carbs are literally everywhere, so it’s not hard to make the switch and incorporate them into your life. It just requires a conscious decision. Ask yourself if you really need certain foods.

Finally, complex carbs are not only going to make you feel better with their efficient relegation of energy, but they are also almost always found in foods that also contain crucial vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. These are all crucial for your health.

Choose a few of your favorite foods from the big lists of complex carbs, and figure out some nice recipes you can make at home. After the learning curve is over, you’ll get into a rhythm and your body will thank you for it.

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