There is conflicting information out there about carbs.
In fact, there are plenty of health benefits associated with
eating carb-containing foods, but that’s only if you eat the
high-carb foods are highly nutritious and even helpful for
weight management, others are detrimental to your health.
What Are Carbs?
There are three major classes of carbs:
Sugars: Individual sugar molecules or short
chains of sugar molecules. These include glucose, fructose,
galactose and sucrose.
Starches: Longer chains of carbohydrate
molecules that need to be broken down in the digestive
Fiber: Carbohydrates that the body cannot
The primary function of carbs is to provide the body with
Most carbs are broken down into glucose in the digestive system
and provide the body with fuel to perform essential functions.
Each gram of carbs provides the body with four calories. The
exception to this is fiber, which generally does not provide
Bottom Line: Carbohydrates are a
macronutrient that provides the body with energy. Carbs
include sugars, starches and fiber.
Not All Carbs Are Created Equal
Part of the reason there is so much confusion regarding carbs
is that not all carbs are created equal.
People tend to classify all carbs as either good or bad, but
that doesn’t make sense.
There are major differences in the health effects of different
types of carbs, so they cannot all be lumped into one
One way that carbs are classified is by the terms “simple” and
“complex.” Some people define all starch and fiber
as complex carbs and all sugars as simple carbs.
However, this definition can be confusing. Some starchy foods
like sweet potatoes, quinoa and legumes provide many health
benefits, while other starch sources like refined wheat flour
are associated with a myriad of health problems.
However, the natural sugars found in whole
fruits and vegetables do not have the same negative
It makes more sense to define complex and simple carbs this
Complex carbs: Carbs found in whole,
unprocessed foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and
Simple carbs: Sugars and starches that have
been refined and stripped of their natural fiber and
Bottom Line: Complex carbs are found in
whole, unprocessed foods. Simple carbs are found in processed
foods and have little nutritional value.
Complex Carbs Are Highly Nutritious, but Simple Carbs Are Not
Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes are highly
nutritious foods that are rich in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins
On the contrary, simple carbs contain “empty” calories, meaning
they have calories, but very little nutritional value.
To highlight the nutritional differences between complex and
simple carbs, let’s compare whole grains and refined grains.
A whole grain contains three distinct parts:
Germ: Part of the seed that’s high in
polyunsaturated fats and various important nutrients.
Endosperm: The inner portion of the grain
that’s mostly made up of starch.
Bran: The hard outer portion of the grain
that’s high in fiber and essential fatty acids.
The germ and bran of a grain are where the majority of its
nutrition is found.
Interestingly, when grains
are processed and refined, the highly nutritious germ and bran
are removed, leaving only the starchy endosperm.
|Whole Wheat Flour||Refined Wheat Flour|
|Carbs||87 grams||95.4 grams|
|Protein||16.4 grams||12.9 grams|
|Fat||2.2 grams||1.2 grams|
|Fiber||14.6 grams||3.4 grams|
|Thiamin (% RDI)||36%||10%|
|Riboflavin (% RDI)||15%||0%|
|Niacin (% RDI)||38%||8%|
|Vitamin B6 (% RDI)||20%||8%|
|Folate (% RDI)||13%||8%|
|Pantothenic acid (% RDI)||12%||5%|
|Iron (% RDI)||26%||8%|
|Magnesium (% RDI)||41%||7%|
|Phosphorus (% RDI)||42%||13%|
|Potassium (% RDI)||14%||4%|
|Zinc (% RDI)||23%||6%|
|Manganese (% RDI)||228%||43%|
|Selenium (% RDI)||121%||61%|
|Choline||37.4 mg||13 mg|
Whole wheat flour is a source of several important nutrients,
but those nutrients are lacking in wheat flour that has been
processed and refined.
The same is true for fruits and vegetables. In their whole
forms, they contain small amounts of sugar, but they are also
packed with vitamins, minerals and fiber.
Bottom Line: Complex carbs, such as whole
grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, are highly
nutritious. Simple carbs provide calories, but little
Health Benefits of Complex Carbs
Carbs are not essential for life, but eating the right kind may
benefit your health.
Complex Carbs Are Less Likely to Cause Blood Sugar Spikes
Simple carbs are digested very quickly, which causes a spike in
your blood sugar.
Complex Carbs May Reduce Your Risk of Some Chronic Diseases
Complex Carbs Promote a Healthier Digestive System
There are billions of “good” bacteria lining your intestines.
They’re known as your gut
Soluble fibers found in complex carbs feed the beneficial
bacteria and increase their presence in your gut. They also
help the bacteria produce nutrients, such as short-chain
fatty acids, which are beneficial for digestive health
Complex Carbs May Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to infection or
injury. However, long-term inflammation can increase the risk
of several chronic diseases (25).
Bottom Line: Complex carbs like whole
grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables have multiple health
Simple Carbs Can Be Detrimental to Your Health
Excessive consumption of simple carbs like refined grains and
added sugars harms your body.
Below are some of the detrimental health effects of simple
They contribute to overeating: Simple carbs
break down quickly and cause a blood sugar roller coaster.
Studies have found that these blood sugar spikes and crashes
contribute to cravings, hunger and overeating (7, 8, 29).
High triglyceride levels: Large amounts of
refined carbs can lead to elevated triglyceride levels, which
increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes
(3, 30, 31, 32).
Increased heart disease risk: Sugar and
refined grains increase heart disease risk. A study found
those who ate the most refined grains were 2–3 times more
likely to develop heart disease than those who ate the least
(33, 34, 35, 36, 37).
Increased risk of type 2 diabetes: Excessive
consumption of simple carbs can cause your cells to become
resistant to insulin, which greatly increases your risk of
type 2 diabetes (34, 38, 39, 40, 41).
Sugar is addictive for some people:
Similarly to recreational drugs, sugar causes the brain to
release dopamine. For people that are prone to addiction,
sugar can be highly addictive (42, 43).
Increased chance of becoming obese: Simple
carbs affect the levels of appetite hormones, making them
likely to contribute to obesity (29, 44).
Bottom Line: A diet high in refined carbs
can have multiple negative health consequences.
Which Foods to Eat and Which Foods to Avoid
Carbs can be a healthy part of your diet if you choose the
The healthiest carbs are from foods that are in their whole,
Complex Carbs to Eat
The following foods are good carbs to include in your diet:
Whole grains: Whole, unprocessed grains like
oats, quinoa, barley and brown rice.
Legumes: Lentils, black beans, kidney beans,
black-eyed peas, etc.
Vegetables: Sweet potatoes, broccoli, green
beans, carrots, asparagus, etc.
- Fruits: Apples, berries, oranges, kiwi, etc.
Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, peanuts,
chia seeds, etc.
Refined Carbs to Limit or Avoid
These foods tend to contain mostly refined
carbs and should be limited:
Sugary beverages: Soft drinks, sweetened
tea, sports drinks, fruit juices, etc.
Desserts and sweets: Donuts, cakes, cookies,
ice cream, candy, etc.
White bread: This includes “white wheat”
White pastas: These are made from refined
Bottom Line: Complex carbs that are in their
whole form are generally healthy foods that are rich in fiber
Take Home Message
Complex carbs are far more nutritious than simple carbs.
They are high in nutrients and fiber, and eating them on a
regular basis can be beneficial for your health and waistline.
On the other hand, simple carbs provide little to no
nutritional value and should be avoided as much as possible.