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Complex vs. Simple Carbs: What’s the Difference?

Stephanie Golub
Feb 28, 2022

What comes to mind when you hear the word “carbs”? Some people might only associate carbohydrates with a pillowy bagel or a big ol’ bowl of pasta. And because of decades of diet culture buzzwords and trends, many now label this nutrient as an absolute no-go. While it’s true that some carbs are superior to others, it’s really all about how you work them into your meals. Craving more info? Here are your hot-button FAQs about carbs, answered! 

What is a carbohydrate?

Carbs are a proud member of the Big 3 of macronutrients, the other two being fat and protein. This superb super-nutrient has three main types—sugar, starches, and fiber. Carbs are broken down in your digestive system into glucose (aka blood sugar), which is then absorbed by your bloodstream to use as energy to fuel you forward. 

What are the health benefits of carbs? 

Carbs can do a whole lot of good for the body. According to the Mayo Clinic, when fiber-rich foods are correctly included in your diet, they can potentially protect against certain cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and can even help control your weight. Yep, we love more reasons to eat potatoes. 

Can carbs impact your health negatively?

Sadly, we can’t always go to town on our favorite carb-y treats. Too many, especially those that are “refined,” can lead to weight gain and can increase your risk of diabetes, high cholesterol, and heart disease. Which brings us to our next burning question…

What is a simple carb?

Refined carbs, also referred to as “simple carbs,” are digested speedily and send an instant boost of glucose into the bloodstream.

What are examples of simple (aka refined) carbs?

Prime suspects of simple carbs include candy, soda, energy drinks, syrups, white bread, pasta, and pastries. Although definitely delicious, a sugary dessert made with white flour can leave you depleted of energy after a short-lived buzz. These carbs have wayyyy more added sugar and are pretty processed, which strips away the nutrients and fiber that complex carbs have. 

What’s a complex carb? 

Complex carbs? Not all that complicated. They have a fantastic fiber content, are loaded with vitamins and minerals, and they take a bit longer to digest. Unprocessed foods with complex carbs send a more steady supply of glucose into the bloodstream, causing blood sugar to rise more slowly instead of producing an instant spike. 

What are examples of complex carbs?

Some common complex carbs include potatoes, brown rice, oats, whole grains, fiber-rich fruits, corn  and veg (like avocados and leafy greens), and legumes like chickpeas and black beans.. (Again, we <3 you, potato.) 

Moral of the story? Carbs are friends and food. Work fiber-filled snacks into your day, like apples, and try swapping your white rice dinner dish with quinoa. It’s also important to remember that anything can fit into your diet in moderation, even your fave refined carbs (AKA, eat the donut)! 

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Complex vs. Simple Carbs: What’s the Difference?