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Carbohydrate Facts: Simple = Bad, Complex = Good?

There is conflicting information out there about carbs.

Studies have shown that
low-carb diets
are effective for
weight loss
, but that doesn’t mean that eating carbs makes
you fat.

In fact, there are plenty of health benefits associated with
eating carb-containing foods, but that’s only if you eat the
right kinds.

While some
high-carb foods
are highly nutritious and even helpful for
weight management, others are detrimental to your health.

Woman Offering Apple to Man With Pop-Tart

What Are Carbs?

Carbohydrates, or
carbs
, are one of three macronutrients that provide the
body with energy. The other two are protein
and fat.

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
    system.
  • Fiber: Carbohydrates that the body cannot
    digest.

The primary function of carbs is to provide the body with
energy.

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
many calories.

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
group.

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.

Additionally, not all sugars have the same effect on your body.
Added sugars like those found in baked goods and sugary drinks
can harm your health (1, 2, 3, 4).

However, the natural sugars found in whole
fruits
and vegetables do not have the same negative
effects.

It makes more sense to define complex and simple carbs this
way:

  • Complex carbs: Carbs found in whole,
    unprocessed foods, including fruits, vegetables, legumes and
    whole grains.
  • Simple carbs: Sugars and starches that have
    been refined and stripped of their natural fiber and
    nutrients.

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

Brown Rice vs White Rice

Complex carbs are healthier than simple carbs because they are
generally
nutrient dense
. This means they contain a large amount of
nutrients in relation to the number of calories
they provide.

Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes are highly
nutritious foods that are rich in antioxidants, fiber, vitamins
and minerals.

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.

Below is a comparison of the nutritional content of one cup
(120 grams) of whole wheat flour and one cup of refined wheat
flour (5, 6):

Whole Wheat Flour Refined Wheat Flour
Calories 407 455
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.

On the other hand,
processed foods
and sugary beverages contain large amounts
of sugar and few nutrients. These added sugars are associated
with all kinds of health problems (1, 2, 3, 4).

Bottom Line: Complex carbs, such as whole
grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, are highly
nutritious. Simple carbs provide calories, but little
nutritional value.

Health Benefits of Complex Carbs

Carbs are not essential for life, but eating the right kind may
benefit your health.

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Complex Carbs Are Less Likely to Cause Blood Sugar Spikes

Simple carbs are digested very quickly, which causes a spike in
your blood sugar.

The blood sugar spike stimulates your pancreas to release a
large dose of insulin, which often leads to a blood sugar
“crash,” leaving you hungry and craving more sugar (7, 8).

Fiber-rich, complex carbs take much longer to break down than
simple carbs. This helps keep blood sugar levels steady, as
sugar reaches the blood stream gradually (9, 10).

Because complex carbs are digested more slowly, they provide
sustained energy and help you feel
full for longer
(11).

Complex Carbs May Reduce Your Risk of Some Chronic Diseases

Consuming complex carbs may help lower your risk of chronic
diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease (12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17).

They tend to be high in dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals,
antioxidants and plant compounds. All of these components play
a role in disease prevention (18, 19).

Furthermore, studies have found that eating whole foods
high in dietary fiber
may lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and
blood sugar levels, as well as help raise “good” HDL
cholesterol (20, 21, 22).

Complex Carbs Promote a Healthier Digestive System

There are billions of “good” bacteria lining your intestines.
They’re known as your gut
microbiota
.

They play a role in managing several digestive disorders and
have been linked to various other aspects of health (22, 23, 24).

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
(23).

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).

While sugary foods and refined flours
promote inflammation
, complex carbs help reduce
inflammation
(26).

Whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes contain fiber and
plant compounds that have anti-inflammatory properties
(27, 28).

Bottom Line: Complex carbs like whole
grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables have multiple health
benefits.

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
carbs:

  • 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

Woman Confused About Salad And Hamburger

Carbs can be a healthy part of your diet if you choose the
right ones.

The healthiest carbs are from foods that are in their whole,
unprocessed form.

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”
    bread.
  • White pastas: These are made from refined
    wheat flour.

Bottom Line: Complex carbs that are in their
whole form are generally healthy foods that are rich in fiber
and nutrients.

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.

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