Carbohydrates: Simple vs. Complex

Last week, I wrote an overview of “bad” fats and “better” fats. One of the comments pointed out that too many carbs can be just as dangerous as loading up of fats. Of course, the point is well-taken, and this week I thought it would be worth it to spend a little bit of time considering carbohydrates.

Carbs come in two types: simple and complex. As a basic rule of thumb, many nutritionists recommend that you try to focus more on getting complex carbs in, and limiting your intake of simple carbs.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbs are digested and absorbed into your system quicker than complex carbs. We often refer to these types of carbohydrates as “simple sugars.” This is because the chemical makeup is rather simple. Simple carbs contain the type of sugar similar to what is in your pantry at home. Sweet pastries, soda, many energy drinks, candy, fruit and milk all contain simple sugars. Many processed foods from the grocery store are also high in simple carbs.

One of the issues with simple carbs is that they are broken down so quickly, and absorbed so quickly, that they end up being turned into fat. That’s why eating a bunch of candy while watching TV contributes to weight gain — even though the candy may claim to have 0 grams of fat.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbs, on the other hand, are those that take longer to break down. They are known as “starches.” Instead of being made up of only one or two sugars, complex carbs have a chemical make up of at least three linked sugars. Some vegetables are considered to have complex carbs, and grains like bread, pasta and oatmeal, as well as rice, are complex carbs.

The more complex a carbohydrate is, the more work it takes your body to break down and absorb into the system. It is general accepted that white bread is simpler than wheat bread, and therefore wheat bread is better for you.

Including Carbohydrates in Your Diet

You do need carbs in order to have a balanced diet. Carbohydrates provide your body with the energy it needs to function properly. However, you should be careful about the carbs that you ingest. Even though fruit and milk have simple carbs, these products shouldn’t be complete shunned, since they have valuable nutrients and fiber. Complex carbs, including starchy vegetables, other vegetables, and whole grain breads and pastas, can provide you with additional nutrients and fiber. Some nutritionists recommend that carbs (mostly complex carbs) make up half your calories.

You do need to watch out, though. Excess carbs can, as noted above, lead to the transformation into fat. This can lead to heart problems and other health issues. On top of that, excess carbohydrate intake can also lead to type 2 diabetes. This becomes especially problematic when combined with a sedentary lifestyle. High levels of sugar in the blood can also lead to:

  • Increased urination
  • Feelings of fatigue
  • Dehydration
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Eye disease
  • Kidney failure

While enjoying sweets on occasion in moderation probably won’t ruin your health, it is better to focus on complex carbs, and make sure that you are getting more of your carbs from vegetables and whole grains, than relying too much on simple carbs for energy. When you add proper exercise to a balanced diet, you are more likely to maintain good health.

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