A common question we receive from our 21 Day Jumpstart Challenge and Complete Wellness members is what are complex carbs, exactly, and how do they differ from simple carbohydrates (carbs)?
These are extremely important questions for people with diabetes to ask. Being aware of the type and amount of carbohydrates in your food can make the difference between having steady blood sugar levels and having too many highs and lows.
Let’s start by setting the foundation for you. Many people are confused about what types of carbs come from which sources and the actual difference as it pertains to how your body digests them. But you have to understand first how your body reacts to all the different macronutrients before getting into how your body reacts to sugar and carbohydrates.
What is a Macronutrient?
Everything you eat is either a carbohydrate, protein or a fat. These are known as macronutrients or “macros,” as they the elements that make up the human diet. They all have a very different effect on your glucose levels, which, in turn, has different effects on your insulin levels.
The Quick and Easy Science Behind Carbs
Now, let’s break down the carbohydrate macronutrient further.
What are simple carbs?
- Simple carbs are sugars.
- All simple carbs are made of just one or two sugar molecules.
- They are the quickest source of energy since they’re very rapidly digested.
What are complex carbs?
- Complex carbs and are more complicated.
- They may be referred to as dietary starch and are made of sugar molecules strung together like a necklace or branched like a coil.
- They are often rich in fiber, take much longer to digest and give a steady supply of energy instead of the burst of energy that simply carbohydrates do.
- Complex carbohydrates are commonly found in whole plant foods and, therefore, are also often high in vitamins and minerals.
To help understand the difference between complex and simple carbs, think of a campfire. Simple carbs are like newspaper. If you put newspaper in the fire, you’ll get a large burst, but it will burn through the newspaper very quickly. Complex carbs are like wood. If you put a log of wood on the fire, the fire may not burst up as big, but the log will allow the fire to burn much longer.
Keep this thought in mind; the further removed from nature the food you eat is, the more it’s refined and processed. The more processed a food is, the greater chance it will be quickly digesting and spike your blood glucose levels.
The Glycemic Load and How Carbs Affect Your Blood Sugar Levels
Describing carbs as either simple or complex is one way to classify them, but nutritionists and dietitians now use another concept to guide people in making decisions about the carbs they choose to eat, the glycemic index.
The glycemic index of a food basically tells you how quickly and how high your blood sugar will rise after eating the carbohydrate contained in that food in comparison to eating pure sugar. Lower glycemic index foods are healthier for your body, and you will tend to feel full longer after eating them. Most, but not all, complex carbs fall into the low glycemic index category.
It is easy to find lists of food classified by their glycemic index (GI). You can see the difference between the glycemic index of some simple and complex carbohydrates in these examples below:
- White rice: Simple carb, high GI: 64
- Brown rice: Complex carb, lower GI than white rice: 55
- White spaghetti: Simple carb, yet lower GI than rice: 44
- Whole wheat spaghetti: Complex carb, lower on the scale: 37
- Corn flakes: very simple carb, very high GI: 81
- Bran (whole grain) cereal: Complex carb, lower on the scale: 38
To take this approach one step further, you want to look at the glycemic load of a food. The glycemic load takes into account not only its glycemic index, but also the amount of carbohydrate in the food. A food can contain carbs that have a high glycemic index, but if there’s only a tiny amount of that carb in the food, it won’t really have much of an impact.
An example of a food with a high glycemic index but a low glycemic load is watermelon, which, of course, tastes sweet but is mostly water.
Take a look at the graph below to see how drastically different types of macronutrients spike your blood sugar levels. Notice that simple carbs (simple c on the graph) create a fast and potentially dangerous spike. Healthy fats, on the other end of the spectrum, take hours to burn and help keep levels stable throughout the day.
The Detail on Complex Carbohydrates
Complex carbohydrates are considered “good” because of the longer series of sugars that make them up and take the body more time to break down. They generally have a lower glycemic load, which means that throughout the day, you’ll get lower amounts of sugars released into your bloodstream at a more consistent rate, which will help keep blood sugar and energy levels stable.
Getting the Best Carb-Rich Foods
Choose whole, unprocessed foods from plant sources whenever you can. Choosing whole fruit instead of juice, a whole-grain side dish instead of crackers, and fresh vegetables instead of potato chips will ensure you’re getting complex carbohydrates, complete with fiber, vitamins and minerals.
When buying packaged foods, check food labels for the word “whole” in front of the word “grain” and make sure that corn syrup or one of the other simple carbohydrates listed above doesn’t appear among the first few ingredients on the list.
Carbohydrates are a major macronutrient and one of your body’s primary sources of energy. Still, there is a constant weight loss buzz that discourages eating them. The key is finding the right carbs, not avoiding them altogether.
You may have heard that eating complex carbs is better than simple carbs. The problem is that nutrition labels don’t tell you whether the carbohydrate content is simple or complex. Either way, understanding how these foods are classified and how they work in your body can help ensure you choose the right carbs.
The More Complex, the Better
Complex carbs pack in more nutrients than simple carbs, because they’re higher in fiber and digest more slowly. This also makes them more filling, which means they’re a good option for weight control. They’re also ideal for people with type 2 diabetes because they help manage post-meal blood sugar spikes.
Fiber and starch are the two types of complex carbohydrates. Fiber is especially important because it promotes bowel regularity and helps to control cholesterol. The main sources of dietary fiber include:
- whole grains
Starch is also found in some of the same foods as fiber. The difference is certain foods are more starchy than fibrous, such as potatoes. Other high-starch foods are:
- whole wheat bread
Complex carbohydrates are key to long-term health. They make it easier to maintain your weight, and can even help guard against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.
Be sure to include the following complex carbohydrates as a regular part of your diet.
- Grains: Grains are good sources of fiber, as well as potassium, magnesium, and selenium. Choose less processed, whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and whole wheat pasta.
- Fiber-Rich Fruits: Such as apples, berries, and bananas (avoid canned fruit; they usually contain added syrup).
- Fiber-Rich Vegetables: Eat more of all your veggies, including broccoli, leafy greens, and carrots.
- Beans: Aside from fiber, these are good sources of folate, iron, and potassium.
Choosing the right carbs can take time and practice. With a little bit of research and a keen eye for nutrition labels, you can start making healthier choices that will energize your body and protect it from long-term complications.
Simple Carb Foods to Avoid
Remember, simple carbs are sugars. While some of these occur naturally, most of the simple carbs in the American diet are added to foods. Common simple carbs added to foods include:
- raw sugar
- brown sugar
- corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup
- glucose, fructose, and sucrose
- fruit juice concentrate
Try to avoid some of the most common refined sources of simple carbs and look for alternatives to satisfy those sweet cravings. Here are common sources of added simple carbs and sugars:
- Soda: Choose water flavored with lemon instead.
- Baked Treats: Satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit.
- Packaged Cookies: Bake your own goods using substitutes like applesauce or sweeteners, or look for other mixes that contain more complex carbs.
- Fruit Juice Concentrate: An easy way to avoid fruit concentrate is to look closely at nutrition labels. Always choose 100 percent fruit juice, or, even easier, make your own at home!
- Breakfast Cereal: Breakfast cereals tend to be loaded with simple carbohydrates. If you just can’t kick the habit, check out this rundown of breakfast cereals, from the best to the worst for your health.
Now, that is a lot of information, but don’t feel overwhelmed! It all comes down to this: natural whole foods without artificial additives are always the best way to go. And although you are constantly bombarded with packaging and advertisements suggesting the prepackaged foods are good for you and “healthy,” the best way to eat healthy is to stick with foods that aren’t process and aren’t refined.
Want to get started on the path towards well-managed diabetes and great health? We’d love to see you inside our 21 Day Jumpstart Challenge! It’s free to join and is an excellent way to build the healthy habits that will allow you to reach your health goals.)
Also stay tuned for the answer to the next important question, “how many carbs should I eat a day?” The answer deserves a blog of its own!
Good Luck and Take Care,
Hi I’m Kyle Jensen the Wellness Coach at Smart Diabetes Solutions. Through poor eating habits and an inactive lifestyle I put myself in a bad state both physically and mentally. After years of retraining my mind and body I decided to take my newfound understanding of health and help others in their journey. I remember the struggle and how many times I almost gave up. Now I want to help others who are overweight or have Diabetes live a happier more healthy life.