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Diet & Nutrition

Debunking Carb Myths: Complex Carbohydrates VS Simple Carbohydrates

10 Mins read

How much do you really know about carbohydrates, and the different types of carbohydrates? Did you know that complex carbohydrates can impact your body differently than simple carbs?

If you’re interested in weight management strategies such as the Keto diet, you might mistakenly assume that carbohydrates are the enemy. After all, cutting out carbs can help some people lose fat much faster. Many weight loss programs advise lowering your carbohydrate intake to reach your goals. 

However, carbohydrates aren’t necessarily bad for you, and there are certainly healthier types of carbs such as certain complex carbohydrates. Unless you’re genetically quite sensitive to carbs, or no other weight loss strategy has worked, you don’t necessarily need to avoid carbs to maintain a healthy diet.

Carbohydrates provide your body and brain with fuel and energy. Without carbs, many people struggle to function at their best.

The key to using carbohydrates correctly, is learning how to differentiate the ‘good’ carbs, from the ‘bad’ carbs. This starts with understanding how to classify carbs into different categories, such as complex carbohydrates, and simple carbohydrates. However, you also need to understand which foods in each category are healthy vs unhealthy. You need to be aware of the fact that it’s a myth that all simple carbohydrates are bad for you, because it’s simply not that black and white.

Carbohydrates: An Important Nutrient Group

Carbohydrates are part of the three major nutrient groups in the foods we eat (as well as fat and protein). During the digestion process, carbs are broken down and used for energy. While protein creates amino acids, and fat produces fatty acids, carbs are broken down into sugars (glucose).

Notably, these sugars in your blood from carbs aren’t the same as the processed and granular sugars you’d find in your local supermarket. The sugars produced by carbs move through the liver and into the bloodstream to supply your body’s cells with energy.

This is why managing carb intake is such an important concept for people with diabetes. If you have diabetes, the pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check, or your body doesn’t respond to the insulin produced. Either way, too many carbs lead to too much sugar in the blood.

Complex Carbohydrates VS Simple Carbohydrates

When managing your carb intake, it’s important to understand there are two different forms of carbohydrates we all consume on a regular basis: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.

As you might guess based on the name, simple carbohydrates have a basic chemical structure, with shorter chains of molecules. Simple carbohydrates are quicker to digest than complex carbs, they produce spikes in your blood sugar a lot faster, and they might have you feeling hungry again sooner than complex carbohydrates.

Simple carbs can include monosaccharides (made up of a single molecule, such as glucose), and disaccharides (made up of multiple molecules, such as lactose).

The spike in energy you get from simple carbohydrates is responsible for the sugar rush you get after drinking a can of soda or eating a chocolate bar. It can also be responsible for the feelings of fatigue or lethargy you get after the initial spike wears off.

Notably, not all simple sugars are processed by the body at the same rate. Whole fruit contains fiber, so the fructose (simple carb) in this produce absorbs into the body more slowly. This means many forms of fruit don’t have the same impact on your blood sugar levels as a candy bar.

It’s a myth that all simple carbohydrates are bad to eat, even if complex carbohydrates are generally more nutritious and more filling. Some simple carbohydrates, such as fruits, are good to include in your diet.

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Examples of Simple Carbohydrates

While most people assume simple carbohydrates are bad for you, the type of food associated with the carb is important too. There are various simple carbohydrates present in healthy foods such as milk, and whole fruits, which also contain critical vitamins and minerals.

Examples of simple carbohydrates most people should include in their diet (unless you have a food intolerance), include:

  • Dairy (unless you’re lactose intolerant)
  • Fresh, whole fruits (such as mangoes, not fruit juices with added sugar)
  • Certain vegetables

Alternatively, there are also a lot of simple carbohydrates we should try to avoid consuming. These are the carbs that cause rapid blood sugar spikes, don’t leave you feeling full for long enough, could lead to overeating, and may be higher in calories. 

The most common simple carbohydrate foods it’s best to try to avoid include:

  • Candy and junk food
  • Sugary drinks (such as soda and processed fruit juices)
  • Table sugar 
  • Syrups such as maple syrup 
  • Baked goods made with simple sugar
  • Products with added sugar (such as ice cream, packaged granola bars, breakfast cereals, )

Although many products high in simple carbohydrates are deemed unhealthy, there are some instances where they may be useful for specific situations.

For example, although certain sports drinks such as Powerade often contain large amounts of added sugar, they can be useful for helping athletes preserve energy and rehydrate thanks to the electrolytes.

Professional athletes need the extra calories from many simple carbs. For example, former professional water polo player Zada Yeung told CircleDNA:

“I drank a lot of sugary and sweet drinks before, after and even during my training sessions. Why? Because I needed the energy. I wasn’t really on a diet, as these high-calorie milkshakes and sugary drinks would easily be burned off with my intense training program.

I ate a lot of fast food, too. I was burning so many calories while training for the games, I didn’t need to diet. In fact, my sport is one of the highest calorie-burning sports out there.”

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Understanding Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are made of longer and more complicated chains of sugar molecules. These are known as oligosaccharides and polysaccharides. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest than simple carbs, are typically more nutritious, and can leave you feeling fuller for longer. When you consume complex carbohydrates, you achieve an increase in your glucose levels for longer, meaning your energy levels aren’t likely to rise and drop sporadically.

A good example of a complex carbohydrate is fiber

Fiber is an essential component of many plant-based foods, and it’s responsible for keeping the digestive system healthy.  

Complex carbohydrates are generally deemed better for a healthy diet (and general health) than their simple alternatives. However, some complex carb choices are better than others. It’s still possible to find complex carbohydrates in unhealthy and processed foods, such as refined white flour.

Therefore, another carb myth is that all complex carbohydrates are good for you.

Examples of Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are often found in whole foods which can be a lot more nutritious than their simple carb alternatives. For instance, whole-grain foods are a form of complex carbohydrate brimming with fiber, vitamins, phytochemicals, and healthy fats. Many people opt for whole grain pasta instead of white pasta noodles.

Some whole grains have also been associated with a lower risk of various chronic health conditions including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Complex carbohydrates generally pack in more nutrients than simple carbohydrates, and digest more slowly, so they’re ideal for managing blood sugar levels and controlling your appetite. 

Examples of good complex carbohydrates to add to your diet include:

  • Whole grains (Such as barley, oats, and wild rice)
  • Quinoa 
  • Nuts (in moderation)
  • Fiber-rich fruits including apples and bananas
  • Fiber-rich vegetables such as broccoli, sweet potatoes and carrots
  • Beans and legumes such as kidney beans and lentils

Other forms of complex carbohydrates are less beneficial to your health. Usually, you can identify a less healthy carbohydrate when it’s described as “refined”. Refined or processed carbs including white flour and white bread have a lower nutritional value, less fiber, and fewer nutrients.

Complex carbohydrate foods to try to avoid include:

  • Cereals made from refined grains, with added simple sugars
  • White bread
  • Pancakes and waffles
  • Pizza dough 
  • White rice and pasta
  • Cakes and other baked goods

Many of these foods are also sources of added sugar, which negates some of the benefits of complex carbs for handling blood sugar spikes.

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Top Benefits of Complex Carbohydrates

While the way your body responds to carbohydrates can vary according to your genetics, and the kinds of foods you choose, complex carbohydrates are generally more beneficial than their simple alternatives. 

The most significant benefits of consuming complex carbs more frequently than simple carbs include:

  • Energy management: Because complex carbs retain high levels of fiber, they’re digested slower and release energy more gradually into the bloodstream. This allows for a steadier supply of energy, rather than rapid sugar spikes followed by a crash. Complex carbs can help with managing issues of fatigue. The reduced blood sugar spikes are also crucial for those with diabetes.
  • Nutrients: Complex carbohydrates generally have more vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals than simple carbs. You can find all kinds of critical nutrition in examples of complex carbs such as whole grains and legumes. This helps you maintain a healthier diet.
  • Weight management and appetite control: Because dismantling complex carbs takes your body some time, they’re likely to make you feel fuller for longer. This can help to reduce the urge to snack between meals or overeat, and may assist with diet and weight loss efforts.
  • Digestion: Because many complex carbs are high in fiber, they assist in digestion and healthy bowel movements. Regular doses of vegetables, beans, and whole grains will help your gut process food and absorb nutrients more effectively.
  • Metabolism: Carbohydrates provide us with energy, making them helpful when it comes to running an effective metabolism. Without energetic calories such as complex carbohydrates, your metabolism could begin to slow down. This can be a concern for people trying low-carb diets, or those attempting to eliminate carbohydrates from their food completely, but everyone is different.
  • Sleep: Certain complex carbohydrates such as sweet potatoes and oatmeal contain a large amount of tryptophan, which relaxes the body and can help you sleep. Oatmeal even helps the body produce the sleep hormone melatonin, which assists with regulating your circadian rhythm. You may find that eating more complex carbs will help tackle sleep issues such as insomnia.
  • Brain function: Your body uses complex carbohydrates to power optimal brain function. Oats, beans, nuts, and seeds all contain an array of complex carbs which assist with mental focus and consistent mood management. Without these tools, you might find yourself struggling to concentrate, or you may experience brain fog.

Balancing Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

How people respond to certain types of carbohydrates and individual foods is dependent largely on their genetic makeup. If you’re struggling with issues such as blood sugar spikes, or you’re looking for ways to manage your weight, switching more simple carbs out for complex carb alternatives could be beneficial.

Still, complex carbohydrates aren’t always going to be the healthiest choice. They do provide a more significant and lasting source of energy than their simple alternatives. Plus, they tend to be packed with more nutrition. However, complex carbs can also appear in unhealthy refined foods. What’s more, avoiding simple carbs completely means missing out on important foods such as fruit. That’s why it’s a myth that one should avoid simple carbs entirely.

When you’re trying to lose weight and improve your health, remember that separating simple and complex carbs is only one part of the process. You’ll also need to think about the other ingredients of the foods you’re eating, and their potential nutritional value. Furthermore, you’ll need to consider the fact that no matter what you eat, a caloric deficit is needed to lose weight, and that’s why counting calories is helpful.

Focus on getting your carbs, both complex and simple, from natural and unrefined sources. This includes eating plenty of vegetables and fresh fruits, whole grains, and foods that contain plenty of fiber. Low-fat dairy products can also be excellent for boosting your nutrition.

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Debunking Carb Myths

Below are some myths about carbs, debunked:

  • It’s a myth that simple carbohydrates are all bad for you
  • You do not need to entirely avoid simple carbohydrates
  • It’s a myth that all complex carbohydrates are good for you. Certain complex carbohydrates are very good for you, but as mentioned in this article, not all complex carbohydrates are healthy.
  • It is normal for your blood glucose level to rise temporarily after eating carbohydrates. Sometimes, however, when blood glucose levels are consistently too high, people can develop health issues such as type 2 diabetes.
  • It’s a myth that all carbs contain gluten.
  • To decipher if you should modify your carb intake, pay attention to how your body responds after eating carbs. Do you feel lethargic or sluggish? If so, you may want to speak to a dietician or nutritionist. 
  • It’s a myth that the sugars and carbs found in fruit mean that you should not eat fruit. Fruits contain carbs in the form of natural sugars – they don’t have added sugar. There are many health benefits of eating fruit.
  • A diet with excessive carbohydrates can cause weight gain if you’re not counting calories, and this is not a myth. Many of the highest calorie foods are in the carbohydrate category.
  • It’s a myth that low-carb diets are guaranteed to make you lose weight. Everyone’s body is different, and everyone responds differently to different diets. Some people lose weight on low-carb diets, but not everyone.
  • It’s not a myth that you should limit your intake of ‘bad’ carbohydrates. You absolutely should limit your intake of highly processed foods with lots of added sugar, cakes, cookies, and sugary beverages.
  • ‘Good’ carbohydrates are not defined as complex carbohydrates. That’s a myth. ‘Good’ carbohydrates (as in, healthier carbohydrates) are ones that are unrefined and unprocessed, as well as whole grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables. Meanwhile, ‘bad’ carbohydrates include highly processed foods, candy, white flour, cakes and cookies.

A healthy diet involves considering the food as a whole, rather than just the type of carbohydrate it contains or how many grams of carbohydrates it contains. It’s also important to find out if it has added sugar, how many calories it contains, how much fiber it has, and more. For example, you can’t judge a food’s worthiness based on whether or not it’s a simple carbohydrate.

Keeping a food diary can help you figure out if your body and mind tends to respond poorly to the consumption of carbs, or certain types of carbs. You can log what you eat, and then log whether or not you feel sluggish, lethargic, too full, or have brain fog after.

Is it in Your DNA to be More Sensitive to Carbohydrates?

Your DNA can impact how your body metabolizes and absorbs carbs, as well as how sensitive you are to insulin, and how your body uses glucose. Some people have a genetic makeup that makes them more sensitive to carbs. Most people (about 50% of people) genetically have a normal sensitivity to carbohydrates. This means they don’t need to avoid carbs. They can tolerate carbohydrates, and will have lower spikes in blood sugar levels after eating carbs. 

If you’d like to find out your genetic sensitivity to carbs, as well as DNA insights that reveal the optimal diet type for you based on your genetics, take the CircleDNA test from home. You’ll receive hundreds of health reports, including diet and nutrition reports.

Rebekah Carter
118 posts

About author
Rebekah is a committed copywriter and freelance content producer with a history in the technology, marketing, and health sectors. She’s worked with leading brands around the world, and is constantly searching for new ways to expand her knowledge, and skills.
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