On the surface carbohydrates seem like a simple matter. But what are they actually, what is the difference between “simple” and “complex” carbohydrates, what place do they have in your diet and why do you need both?
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates basically are one or more of several kinds of sugar, because sugar isn’t just sugar, there are numerous types of it, like glucose, fructose, maltose and many more.
Whatever kind of sugar a carbohydrate contains, your body breaks it down to glucose, the most simple of all sugars, which fulfills several functions in the human body. When we talk about fitness, glucose is the major fuel source for demanding activities like fast running or heavy weightlifting.
Simple And Complex?
The difference now between simple and complex carbohydrates lies in how many sugars a carbohydrate is made up of.
A simple carbohydrate contains one or two kinds of sugar and a complex carbohydrate contains three or more. Scientists call them mono-, di- and polysaccharides:
- Monosaccharides contain one sugar and the best example here is the above glucose, that the human body uses for fuel.
- Disaccharides contain two sugars. Table sugar, the one you use to sweeten coffee, is an example for them, as it consists of glucose and fructose.
- Polysaccharides are the most complex sugars, as they come with three or more sugars. They also are called starches and occur in plants, because of the way plants store energy. Foods that directly comes from plants, like bread, vegetables, noodles and seeds, therefore contain a lot of complex carbohydrates.
The more sugars a carbohydrate is made from, the longer it takes your body to break it down to glucose. This is why complex carbohydrates keep you satiated for longer. Simple carbohydrates, on the other hand, are broken down faster and deliver energy more immediately.
Complex Doesn’t Equal Good
For many health enthusiasts a common concept they follow has become that simple carbohydrates should be avoided and complex sought out. But not all simple carbohydrates are bad and not all complex carbohydrates are good.
Some fruits mainly contain simple carbohydrates, but they also come with vitamins and what are called “phytonutrients” – nutrients that aren’t vitamins, but still play an important role in keeping you healthy.
In contrast, white bread is a source for complex carbohydrates, but the bread is so white because the flour it was made from was cleaned to achieve that effect. This cleaning process basically removes all nutrients in the flour except the carbohydrates.
This gives us some idea about how to choose carbohydrates.
The worst choice would be sweets like candy bars that contain mainly simple carbohydrates and little or no nutrients. They won’t give the body anything beyond a fuel that won’t keep it satiated for long, which is why they are sometimes called “empty calories”.
For general nutrition, a healthy carb choice would instead be a source of complex carbohydrates made from whole grains. Those still contain all the nutrients that make complex carbohydrates healthy and will keep you filled up for quite a bit. There is a big variety you can choose from here, as practically everything made from normal flour can also be bought as a whole grain product: bread, pasta, cereals, cookies etc.
When you need some immediate energy, let’s say right before a workout, have some fruits. They are a great source for simple carbohydrates, because they will give your body a boost almost rightaway and come with those vitamins and phytonutrients on top of it.