Carbohydrates are one of the three main nutrients found in food. These nutrients are called “macronutrients” and, in addition to carbohydrates, also include proteins and fats. You may have heard that carbohydrates (carbs) are “bad” for you or that they will potentially cause your blood sugar to increase. But did you know that carbs are the main macronutrient that our bodies use to produce energy, more so than protein and fat? Carbohydrates are categorized as simple and complex. Let’s take a look at the differences between these two types of carbohydrates and how they can be included as part of a healthy eating plan. 


How does the body use carbohydrates? 

When we consume foods that contain carbs, the digestive system breaks down the carbohydrates into glucose which is a type of sugar. The blood transports glucose throughout the body to provide energy to the cells. When the level of glucose in the bloodstream is too high, the glucose begins to damage the tissues it comes into contact with. This is why it is important for people with diabetes to be aware of their carbohydrate intake to avoid the blood glucose (AKA blood sugar) levels becoming too high. However, people with diabetes may not be the only ones who benefit from maintaining balanced blood glucose levels. Keeping blood sugar levels from going too high or too low may help with weight management, energy levels, mood and decrease the risk of developing serious health conditions such as heart disease. 


What makes a carb simple or complex? 

Carbohydrates are made up of three components- fiber, starch and sugar. Fiber and starch are complex carbohydrates and sugar is a simple carbohydrate. Complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to digest and release glucose into the bloodstream gradually whereas sugar is a quick energy source that will raise blood glucose levels rapidly. 

It is best, therefore, to consume mainly complex carbohydrates instead of simple ones. In our American diet, we consume a large amount of simple carbohydrates through refined sugars found in many processed foods. Complex carbohydrates, however, come from whole foods and are nutrient dense with higher levels of vitamins, minerals and fiber. Fiber can help you to feel fuller longer which can help with curbing cravings and maintaining a healthy weight. It also aids in promoting bowel regularity and lowering cholesterol levels. 


What are examples of simple and complex carbs? 

We often associate carbohydrates with foods like breads and pastas, but carbohydrates can be found in many other foods including fruits and vegetables! Here is a list with common sources of simple and complex carbohydrates. 

Simple Carbohydrates: 

– Sugar 

– White breads/pastries 

– Pastas 

– White rice 

– Sugar beverages 

– Candy 

– Chips 


Complex Carbohydrates: 

– Whole grain pasta and bread 

– Brown rice 

– Oatmeal 

– Sweet potatoes 

– Beans/lentils 

– Fruits and vegetables 


If you are looking to include more complex carbohydrates in your diet, an easy way is to aim to eat more whole foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables and limit your intake of refined sugars and processed foods. Consider using the MyPlate guide for help eating a balance diet. 


Check out our related blog article “How to eat healthy using the easy-to-follow tool: MyPlate”