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Everything You Need to Know About Simple and Complex Carbs

Carbohydrates (carbs) are an important macronutrient that provides energy for your body. Carbohydrates can be a controversial topic with weight loss programs, discouraging people from eating them. However, the key is eating the right carbs. You have heard you should substitute simple carbs with complex ones, but what does that mean? Read on to find out.


What are Carbohydrates?


A carbohydrate is a macronutrient that your body needs besides proteins and fat. Your body relies on carbohydrates for energy. The body breaks down carbs into glucose, which fuels cells and is transported in the bloodstream to provide energy to organs, muscles, and tissues.


Typically, carbohydrates take up a considerable percentage of calories and are common in most diets. Carbs are easy to find in food, vegetables, fruits, dairy, beverages, and rice. While the body needs carbs, not all carbs are created equal. There are two main types of carbohydrates- simple and complex carbs.


Why Your Body Needs Carbohydrates?


When you consume carbohydrates, they are broken into glucose and transported to the bloodstream during digestion.


The pancreas releases insulin when the glucose gets into the bloodstream to prompt cells to use the available glucose. Insulin helps convert glucose into energy which your body can use. As more cells take in the glucose, the blood sugar level falls, and the pancreas releases glucagon to alert the liver to release stored glucose.


So, when you consume simple carbs, sugar increases in the bloodstream, causing a spike in insulin release. So, you get a burst of energy followed by a severe dip- the crash. Continuously consuming simple carbs will result in the body pumping a lot of insulin, and over time, your body becomes insulin resistant. Therefore, it is essential to understand simple and complex carbohydrates. 



Simple Carbs


What are They?


Simple carbs refer to single-unit (monosaccharides) and two-unit (disaccharides) sugars. They are common in all sorts of foods and are the most basic form of carbohydrates. If consumed excessively, simple carbs spike blood sugar levels, leading to insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. 


Common simple carbs


There are healthy and unhealthy simple carbs. Fruits and vegetables contain simple carbohydrates and are part of a healthy diet. Additionally, they are also rich in micronutrients and fiber. Milk and dairy products contain lactose, a simple carbohydrate. There are also unhealthy foods full of simple carbohydrates like candy, syrups, table sugar, baked goods, and fruit juice.


Simple carbs are not only added sugars, but they can also occur naturally. For example, the sugar found in honey, molasses, milk, dairy, grains, and vegetables. 



Which Simple Carbohydrates Should I Limit?


Most people overdo added sugars and simple carbs. The carbs you should limit are:


  • White rice
  • Refined pasta and white bread
  • Cola, sodas, and sweetened beverages
  • Chocolate candy bars
  • Sports drinks
  • Pastries and baked goods


Sugary drinks like cola and sodas will not only raise your insulin levels but can harm your health in other ways. You can replace them with flavored lemon water. Most baked goods are loaded with simple carbs and sugars which do not benefit your body. You can always reach for fruits or salads to satisfy your sweet tooth. White rice, refined cereals, and other items on the list are full of simple carbs which can do more harm than good.


Complex Carbs


Complex carbohydrates are carbohydrates with a longer chain of sugar molecules than simple carbs, hence the name complex carbohydrates. They contain chains of simple carbs and are also known as polysaccharides. Complex carbs take longer to digest and provide a stable source of energy. 


In digestion, the body breaks down sugar molecules in complex carbohydrates into glucose which the body uses for energy. Most complex carbs provide fiber, minerals, vitamins, and phytochemicals. They include:


  • Whole wheat pasta
  • Cucumber
  • Millet
  • Black beans
  • Corn
  • Oatmeal
  • Quinoa
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cantaloupe
  • Pears


How Are Simple Carbs Different from Complex Carbs?


Digestion- simple carbs are simply full of sugar and are easy to digest compared to complex carbs that are nutrient-dense and take longer to digest. 


Insulin levels- the only byproduct of simple carbs is glucose, which enters your bloodstream, and raises your blood sugar. On the other hand, complex carbs are digested at a slower pace and release glucose steadily in the bloodstream without huge spikes in insulin.


Which is Better?


Carbohydrates provide the body with energy; therefore, complex carbohydrates are better when working out. They take longer to digest since they are made of long chains of molecules compared to simple carbohydrates. 


Simple carbohydrates that take a short time to digest only offer a short-lasting source of energy, and spike the glucose level in the blood, often called a sugar rush. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates raise sugar levels for longer and, thus, offer a lasting elevation in energy. 



Do Simple and Complex Carbs Affect Weight Differently?


Are you working out to lose weight? Then you must be wondering if carbs are right or wrong for your course. Both simple and complex carbs are stored in limited quantities. So, if your body doesn’t use the energy from carbs quickly through physical activity or exercise, it breaks them down and converts them into fat.


Since simple carbs are easier to break down and store as fat, leading to weight gain. Therefore, it is recommended to consume complex carbs when working to lose weight. They take longer to break down and don’t spike your insulin levels. Complex carbs also take longer to become fat and store in the body.


Tips to Reduce Simple Carbs


First, always hydrate. Staying hydrated helps you care for your body and helps avoid dehydration. It also promotes digestion and reduces hunger which will keep you from the frequent need to consume simple carbs. Besides, water has zero calories, unlike sugary beverages like cola and sodas. 


Second, ensure you eat the right amount of protein and add healthy fats to every meal for satiety. Protein and healthy fat keep you full, making indulging in simple carbs less tempting. Fats also help your body function correctly. 


Third, pre-plan meals to avoid last-minute rushing to eat simple carbohydrates, and lastly, always check for hidden sugar. Below is a table on food swap examples to help you replace simple carbs with complex carbs.


Food Swap Examples


Instead OfEat
Water crackersWholegrain crispbread
YogurtIce cream
White breadWholemeal braid with seeds and grains
PretzelsUnsalted nuts
Corn pastaWholemeal pasta
White riceLong-grain brown rice
White PastaWholemeal pasta or legume-based pasta
Mashed white potatoMashed pumpkin
White potatoMashed pumpkin


Three More Things You Should Also Know About Carbs


Besides understanding simple and complex carbs, there is more you should know about carbs. Do you know about processed carbs? These are carbs whose natural state has been altered by varying degrees. The processing makes the food harder to digest.  For example, grains contain the germ, where most nutrients are found, the bran, the outer layer, and the endosperm, which contains starch. The nutrient-rich germ is removed when it undergoes processing, leaving the endosperm. 


So, there are a lot of missing nutrients, which make it easier for the body to break down. That is why a diet rich in ultra-processed foods increases weight gain because there is a less nutritional benefit to the body.


Second, it is essential to understand the nutrient profile in high-carb foods. For example, sweets and fruits contain sugar, but there is more to consider. Candy is full of empty calories because they don’t offer nutritional benefits, unlike fruits which contain nutrients like antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. However, there are still differences. For example, apples are high in fiber, while watermelons are low in fiber, making them fast for the body to absorb. So, if you eat carbohydrates with low protein and fiber, you will get a sugar rush and crash. 


Third, watch out for what you eat alongside carbs. You should always combine carbs with protein, fat, and fiber. Protein and fat take longer to digest than carbohydrates, which will leave you fulling longer and won’t spike your blood sugar. 


The key to eating carbs is to supply your body with long-lasting energy. Understanding the above three factors and knowing simple vs. complex carbs will guide you. 


Carbs and Muscle Growth


There is a lot of information online saying protein should be your main focus when working on muscle growth. While this is true, carbohydrates are also essential. Besides weight resistance and training to build muscle, you must also provide the muscles with all the necessary nutrients. 


Carbohydrates increase the transportation rate of amino acids to tissues, increase protein synthesis and decrease protein breakdown. Additionally, carbohydrates ensure you have the required energy for your workouts as your primary source of energy.


Are you going low-carb and worried about training?- Here is a helpful guide on training hard on a low-carb diet.



Take Away


Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy for the body. However, it is best to replace simple carbs with complex carbs to get a long-lasting source of energy. Switching simple carbs and replacing them with complex carbs give you long-lasting energy, controls your hunger, and reduces the fat stored in your body.


While there is no bad food, always avoid simple carbs and consume them in moderation. 





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