What’s the Difference Between Simple Carbs and Complex Carbs?


by Nadia Bashir April 03, 2018

The popularity of low carb diets has given carbs a bad reputation. But just like there are healthy and unhealthy kinds of fats, there are also healthy (i.e., complex carbs) and unhealthy (i.e., simple carbs) types of carbs. Want to know which kinds of carbs you can eat and which ones you should avoid? Check out the breakdown below.

Please note that the following information doesn’t apply to people with genetic conditions that restrict the body’s ability to metabolize certain carbohydrates. These include lactose intolerance, galactosemia, and celiac disease.

Simple Carbs vs. Complex Carbs

Carbs are categorized as either simple carbohydrates or complex carbohydrates. Simple carbs are made up of a short chain of molecules whereas complex carbs are composed of a longer chain.

Technically, all carbs are sugars. However, not all carbohydrates are sweet. And not all of them exist in foods alongside healthy vitamins and fibre. For example, granulated sugar (a simple carb) is an unhealthy carb because it isn’t accompanied by fibre or vitamins. In comparison, vegetables and whole grain breads (complex carbs) are healthy carbs because they are accompanied by vitamins and fibre. Although complex carbs tend to be healthier than simple carbs, this isn’t always the case. Some complex carbs (for example, white flour and pastries) are refined, which means they have been stripped of vitamins and fibre. They may also contain added sugar.

In addition to looking at fibre and vitamin content, consider a carb’s glycemic index. Scientists have found that the glycemic index may be a better way of distinguishing healthy and unhealthy carbs.

Finding Hidden Sugars

Added sugars are present in many foods. But it isn’t always easy to find them. Sometimes this is because food manufacturers use the scientific names of added sugars on ingredient labels.

Below is a list of common names for simple carbs to help you spot them on grocery store shelves. To avoid having to memorize all of these terms, learn common prefixes (for example, “malt-“) and suffixes (for example, “-ose”) that are present in many of these terms.

Simple Carbs (1-2 sugar molecules)

  • Glucose
  • Sucrose
  • Fructose
  • Lactose
  • Dextrose
  • Polydextrose
  • Maltodextrin
  • Oligofructose
  • Maltose
  • Mannitol

Watch out for the following ingredients too:

  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Dehydrated juice
  • Fruit juice concentrate
  • Evaporated cane juice
  • Molasses (treacle)
  • Crystals
  • Syrups

Here are some foods that contain simple carbs:

  • Cereals made from enriched wheat flour
  • White bread, pasta, and rice
  • Table sugar
  • Pastries
  • Canned fruit
  • Condiments, such as jams, ketchup, and BBQ sauce
  • Sodas
  • Candies
  • Desserts

Complex Carbs (3 or more sugar molecules)

Complex carbs are found in whole plant foods and whole grains. Because they usually have a low glycemic index, they release energy more slowly and consistently than simple carbs do.

Here are common foods that contain complex carbs:

  • Vegetables
  • Whole grain flour in breads, pasta, and couscous
  • Oats, bran, and barley
  • Brown and wild rice
  • Legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, and peas)
  • Quinoa

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Nadia Bashir
Nadia Bashir

Author

Nadia is the Founder of Inpression Editing. She holds a PhD from the University of Toronto and has expertise in research, health care, and psychology. She has been interviewed by well-known organizations, including the David Suzuki Foundation and the National Post. She makes a mean gluten-free cinnamon—pecan bread and loves a good mint lemonade.



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