Simple vs Complex Carbs...what's the difference and why should you care?

Carbohydrates are one of three Macronutrients our body needs to survive. Carbs are broken down into sugar in the body and are used as fuel for every cell we have.

In theory, simply vs complex carbs is not a difficult concept to understand. It is more challenging to know what carbs fall into what category and how to utilize this information.

This is getting into some slightly more in-depth nutrition info but be sure you have mastered the basics first:

  • half your weight in oz. of water (more water in means less bad stuff in)
  • protein with every meal
  • eat more veggies
  • get adequate sleep

The simple vs complex carbs refer to how the carbs are built on a molecular level. It affects how your body breaks down this macronutrient.
"Simple" carbs have either 1 or 2 sugar molecules (mono- and disaccharides). It is digested quickly, absorbed into your bloodstream quickly, and is utilized as energy quickly.

"Complex" carbs are a polysaccharide, meaning more than two sugar groups together. These take longer for the body to break these molecules down before they can be used.

That is as science'y as we need to get.  

Why does any of this matter?

Well, it is generally considered in the health world that simple carbs are NOT good for you, complex are good for you.  There will be a list below...
There are some occasions where simple sugars can be used to your advantage, which is right before and right after your workout.

Because of how fast they digest, taking them before a workout will raise your blood sugar level and help give you energy for the upcoming work. After, they help with quick recovery of glycogen stores.

Why are simple considered "bad"?

When the diet consists of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates (which the body breaks down rapidly), one may notice elevations in blood triglyceride levels, bad cholesterol, and insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance is just Type 2 Diabetes or a precursor to it.
When you spike your blood sugar, your body produces insulin to bring it back to normal levels. Over the years, if you abuse this cycle, your body stops responding to the insulin and you can no longer regulate your blood sugar levels = not good!

What should be your primary focus with Carbs?

First, carbs in general at not "bad" yet they get demonized in this industry. Instead, avoid the bad carbs like processed foods, refined sugars, etc.

Your focus should be on eating "high glycemic index" carbs. I debated throwing this term in the mix to keep this as simple as possible, but it gives you something you can Google if you need additional resources for eating the right carbs.

Bad Carbs (to avoid outside of directly before and after workouts)

  • Sugary drinks: Coke, Pepsi, Vitaminwater, etc.
  • Fruit juices: Unfortunately, fruit juices may have similar metabolic effects as sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • White bread: These are refined carbohydrates that are low in essential nutrients and bad for metabolic health. This applies to most commercially available breads.
  • Pastries, cookies, and cakes: These tend to be very high in sugar and refined wheat.
  • Ice cream: Most types of ice cream are very high in sugar, although there are more and more healthy exceptions (Halo Top, etc).
  • Candies and chocolates: If you’re going to eat chocolate, choose quality dark chocolate.
  • French fries and potato chips: Whole potatoes are healthy, but french fries and potato chips are not.

Good Carbs (eat more of, just not right before a workout!)

  • Vegetables: All of them. It is best to eat a variety of vegetables every day.
  • Whole fruits: Apples, bananas, strawberries, etc.
  • Legumes: Lentils, kidney beans, peas, etc.
  • Seeds: Chia seeds, pumpkin seeds.
  • Whole grains: Choose grains that are truly whole, as in pure oats, quinoa, brown rice, etc.
  • Tubers: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.

If you are reading all this and now your head is spinning, take a deep breath! This is not something new, this is just a more in-depth way of saying "eat more whole foods". Avoid the junk...we all have a pretty good idea of what that is, now it's just a matter of actually doing it!

That is the difficult part! You can't get your meals from a box, you usually can't get healthy options from something with 42 ingredients on the label.
You have to eat real food and use these old school things called "recipes" (they sometimes come on index cards from mother's and gramdmothers) and take some time to learn the skill of cooking and/or prepping your meals.

Get over this hump, away from needing everything instantly, and this entire diet and nutrition thing can become much easier!