Complex Carbs vs. Simple Carbs
Carbs, Carbs, Carbs! It’s on the tip of every fitness tongue. It’s a topic in every fad diet. Carbs have been villainized as fat fostering foes.
And it may be true—depending on the type of carb we’re talking about.
Oh, you don’t know? There are two types of carbs (and three categories of them.)
Yeah, you know diet and nutrition can never be ‘simple’. Unless it’s a simple carb. See what we did there?
Yup. Lets get carbin’.
Carbs are the main source of energy and calories in a healthy diet. But the carb source matters.
Fiber and starch are the two types of complex carbohydrates. Complex carbs usually have multiple sugar molecules strung together like a necklace. Most of them can be found in whole plant foods like veggies, so they also offer the benefit of vitamins and minerals.
Whoa—vegetables are a carb? Yes, yes they are.
The body digests complex carbs more slowly than simple carbs. As such, they provide a longer burning fuel for the body’s energy needs. Because they contain fiber, they also benefit digestive health.
Complex carbohydrates differ from simple carbs because they still have their fiber, where with many simple carbs, the fiber has been stripped via food processing. So brown breads and brown rice retain their fiber versus white bread and rice which has had fiber stripped from it.
Here are a few more sources of complex carbs:
- Brown Rice
- Cereal (some)
- Green veggies
- Starchy veggies like taters, corn & sweet potatoes
- Whole grains (and foods made from them) like whole-grain breads, oatmeal & pasta.
Now, simple carbohydrates are just that-simple. They are one or two sugar molecules. They aren’t always bad. They are the fastest source of energy and rapidly digested by the body. So, right after training, simple carbs are often the go-to for glycogen/energy replenishment. You can find them in fruits, processed foods with added sugars and milk.
Some food sources of simple carbohydrates include:
- Brown sugar
- Corn syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Fruit drinks/Fruit juice concentrate
- Glucose, fructose, and sucrose
- Jams & jellies
- Maple syrup
- Raw sugar
- Soft drinks
- Table sugar
Now, just knowing the difference can help you in making healthy choices, but understanding how the body handles them can also be beneficial.
*carb investigation ensues*
Carbs come in three categories:
A lot of you might hear the term ‘net carb’ because fiber is included in the total carb count. Fiber is non-digestible by the body, so it does not raise blood sugar or spike insulin. Thus, when totaling up carb counts, you can subtract the total grams of fiber from the total grams carbs which equals net carbs.
But fiber is still a carbohydrate. Our stomach cannot break apart the sugar links inside it so it just passes through and is eventually absorbed by the body.
The best part about fiber is that it makes us feel fuller.
Sugars and starches are digestible sugars. All digestible simple sugars and starches are converted to glucose (sugar) in our body.
Now–glucose is another villainized nutrient, but it’s actually necessary to live. Glucose is the energy source of most cells—and even the brain needs it to function.
So why are they blamed for all the weight gain in the world? Well Watson, it’s all about how our bodies process carbs and sugars along with our lifestyles to understand it fully.
When we consume starches and sugars, blood glucose, (blood sugar) rises. This rise triggers an insulin response in our bodies. Insulin is a hormone that yanks glucose from the blood and sends it to cells to use as energy.
If your body doesn’t need energy because you’ve consumed more than it needs or because you’re not an active person, the body stores it as glycogen for future energy needs. Hmmm…stored sugar…what does that sound like? FAT.
When the storage limits are reached, the body will convert space-hogging glycogen into fat.
How to Tell Which Carbs are in your Food
Since labels don’t disclose whether carbs are complex or simple, you have to continue to be a bit of a sleuth.
- Choosing whole foods from plant sources is your first tip.
- If corn syrup or any other simple carb from the list above is listed in the first few ingredients on the panel, chances are—you’ve got simple carbs.
- If you see ‘added sugars’ on the label—its likely simple carbs.
- If you see whole grain or lots of fiber, you’re probably making a good selection.
And you don’t have to cut yourself off completely from simple carbs—just control yourself!
Making simple carbs part of your post-workout drink is a great option, or treating yourself every now and then to a simple carb meal is fine. Carbs only become a problem when your willpower becomes a problem.
So it’s up to you whether carbs are a villain.
So, now that you’ve gained a few IQ points and brain pounds, go out there and make some smart decisions. That gets you one step closer to your finish line. We know you’ll cross it.