Simple vs Complex Carbs

Carbohydrates are a major macronutrient. They are actually one of your body’s primary sources of energy.

Carbs are an essential nutrient. You may think of pasta and bread when you hear the word carb, but several foods contain carbohydrates. 

You have probably heard many weight loss programs discouraging you from eating carbs and too many calories. But the key isn’t to avoid carbs altogether. It’s all about finding the right carbs. You may have heard about complex carbohydrates and simple carbs.

Unfortunately, nutrition labels don’t always specify whether the carbs are simple or complex. Understanding how carbs are classified and how they work in your body is important so you can make healthy food choices. 

Carbs are made up of three components: fiber, starch, and sugar. Carbs provide most of the body’s energy, so let’s learn more about this vital macronutrient.

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Simple vs complex carbs

Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient, just like fat and protein. They have a variety of physical and physiological properties and several health benefits. Just like other macronutrients, the classification of carbohydrates depends on their chemistry.

Both simple and complex carbs are types of glycans. Carbohydrates are actually divided into three main groups:

  • Sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides)

  • Oligosaccharides

  • Polysaccharides (glycogen is an example of a polysaccharide)

Sugars are shorts chains and considered simple carbs. Oligosaccharides are medium in the chain length. They are a type of complex carb. Polysaccharides are long chains and are also complex carbs.

Fiber and starch are complex carbs. Sugar is a simple carb.

Different types of carbs have different effects on blood glucose levels, insulin regulation, microbial fermentation, and bowel function.

Simple carbs

Recent studies encourage patients to reduce their intake of simple sugars. Some data is linking simple carbs to cancer risk. Women with gestational diabetes are encouraged to limit their total intake of simple carbs. This is because a high intake of simple carbs can impact maternal glucose.

Women with gestational diabetes should therefore choose complex and low glycemic carbs instead. Most of the simple carbs in the standard American diet are added to foods, as opposed to being found in them naturally. 

Simple carbs are composed of shorter molecule chains. They are quicker to digest compared to complex carbs. This means that simple carbs create a spike in blood sugar. This only provides the body with a short source of energy. That initial spike in energy is what we call the sugar rush. This happens after consuming simple carbs like a chocolate bar or a sugary drink. High intake of simple carbs has also been linked to weight gain.

Complex carbs

Many studies show the beneficial effects of complex, low glycemic index carbs high in fiber. Complex carbs can be helpful for diabetes.

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet (called DASH for short), and the Mediterranean diet encourage complex carbohydrate intake. Both these diets have proven beneficial effects. There is a wide range of consensus that increased complex carbs in the diet are consistent with good health.

Complex carbs pack in more nutrients and essential vitamins than simple carbs. Complex carbs are higher in fiber and digest more slowly. This also makes them more filling. They can therefore be helpful when trying to control your weight. Complex carbs can be helpful for people with diabetes. This is because complex carbs help to manage blood sugar spikes after meals.

Fiber is important because it promotes regular bowel function. Fibre also helps to control cholesterol levels. The American Diabetes Association recommends getting between 25 and 35 grams of fiber each day. Starch is another type of complex carb. Some foods contain both fiber and starches. Certain foods are more starchy than fibrous, such as potatoes.

Complex carbs are a more stable source of energy than simple carbs. Complex carbohydrates have longer sugar chains than simple carbs. The body converts these sugar molecules into glucose.

The body then uses this glucose for energy. Complex carbs raise blood sugar levels for longer and produce a more sustainable energy spike. The primary function of carbs is to provide your body with energy. Complex carbs do this more effectively than simple carbs.

Simple carb foods to avoid

When you’re at the grocery store, keep an eye out for the following simple carb ingredients to avoid:

  • Glucose

  • Fructose

  • Sucrose

  • Raw sugar

  • Brown sugar

  • Corn syrup

  • High-fructose corn syrup

In order to avoid refined carbohydrates, you’ll want to stay away from the following foods and drinks, which contain added sugars and refined sugars/refined carbs:

  • Candy

  • Syrups

  • Table sugar

  • Sweet drinks

  • Sweets

  • Fruit juice

  • Fruit juice concentrate

  • Soda

  • Baked goods

  • Packaged cookies

  • Breakfast cereal

  • Refined grains (such as white flour)

Instead of fruit juice from concentrate, choose 100% fruit juice. Or, even better, make your own juice at home. Whole fruits are even better than fruit juice. This is because whole fruits contain more dietary fiber. Instead of soda, try flavoring your water with lemon. If you have a sweet tooth, satisfy it with fruit rather than baked goods.

Rather than buying packaged cookies, try baking your own! You can use sweetener substitutes like apple sauce. If you’re not into the idea of baking, then opt for cookie mixes that contain more complex carbs. As a general rule, stay away from processed foods. Go for whole, healthy foods instead.

It’s important to point out that not all simple carbs are necessarily bad. Certain fruits and vegetables contain simple carbs. As we know, fruits and vegetables make up an important part of a healthy diet. This is because they have several micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. They also contain the ever-important dietary fiber. Milk and dairy products contain lactose. Lactose is a disaccharide. This is a type of simple sugar. Milk products don’t contain fiber. However, they are rich in calcium, vitamin D, and protein.

The most essential simple carbs to avoid are those that are in processed foods. Food products with added sugars are worth avoiding as well. Adding sugar to foods also adds calories to it. And sugars don’t typically add any extra nutrition to your meal.

In certain situations, simple carbs can be beneficial. One example is in sports drinks. It is crucial to replenish carbohydrates after an athletic event. However, these sports drinks may not necessarily help to improve sports performance.

Scientists and nutritionists are still unsure whether these drinks’ benefits offset the negative consequences of having so much sugar. Evidence for their effectiveness isn’t there. One study found no improvements in performance 50% of the time. And when there were improvements, they were only by 1 to 13 percent.

Complex carbs you should eat more of

Here are some complex carbs you should eat more of:

  • Whole grains

  • Non starchy vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Nuts

  • Beans

  • Legumes

  • Whole wheat bread

  • Corn

  • Oats

  • Peas

  • Rice

  • Potatoes

  • Sweet potato

Whole grains are good sources of fiber, potassium, magnesium, and selenium. Examples of whole grains include quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice, and whole-wheat pasta.

Examples of non-starchy vegetables are broccoli, leafy greens, and carrots. For fruit, you’ll want to avoid any canned fruit since it usually contains added syrup. Fruits to include a healthy complex carb diet include apples, berries, and bananas. Beans are great because they contain lots of fiber and folate, iron, and potassium.


By now, you should be able to identify a carb as either simple or complex. In general, it’s best to avoid foods containing simple carbohydrates. There are certain complex carbs that you’ll want to include in your diet for their health benefits. But if you’re going to be making any drastic changes to your diet, it’s always a good idea to speak to your health care provider first. Find out if this type of diet is right for you today.

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  2. Golabek, KD & Regulska-Ilow, B. (2019). Dietary support in insulin resistance: An overview of current scientific reports. Adv Clin Exp Med. 28 (11), 1577-85.
  3. Mustad, VA; Huynh, DT; Lopez-Pedrosa, JM; Campoy, C & Rueda, R. (2020). The role of dietary carbohydrates in gestational diabetes. Nutrients. 12 (2), 385.
  4. No authors listed. (1995). Complex carbohydrates: the science and the label. Nutr Rev. 53 (7), 186-93.
  5. Varki, A. (2017). Biological roles of glycans. Glycobiology. 27 (1), 3-49.
  6. Vieytes, CAM; Taha, HM; Burton-Obanla, AA; Douglas, KG & Arthur, AE. (2019). Carbohydrate nutrition and the risk of cancer. Curr Nutr Rep. 8 (3), 230-9.

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