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Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrates

While most people have heard that complex carbohydrates are better for you than simple carbohydrates, you might ask what is  the difference between the two, and why the differences between simple and complex carbohydrates affects your health?

There are three types of carbohydrates: sugars, starches and fibre.

Starches and sugars provide the body with its main source of energy (glucose), some readily available and some when broken down in the body.

All carbohydrates are comprised of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen which are organised into single units.  Sugars have one or two single units and are “simple carbohydrates,” while starches and fibres have multiple numbers of these units, making them “complex”.


Simple Carbohydrates

Sugars (simple) occur naturally in foods or can be added into foods, your body can’t distinguish between the natural or added.

Simple carbohydrates include glucose, fructose and galactose (monosaccharides, one-unit sugars), these can be absorbed directly and don’t require further breakdown from enzymes. Unlike the disaccharides (two-unit sugars) and polysaccharides (many-unit sugars). Table sugar however, which is sucrose (a two-unit sugar) belongs to a larger group of sugars which are also known as simple carbohydrates.


When two monosaccharides chemically combine they form disaccharides to create one of the following:

  • Lactose = glucose + galactose. Lactose is a natural sugar, and it can be found in milk and other dairy products.
  • Sucrose = glucose + fructose. Sucrose which is table sugar, occurs naturally in several fruits, grains and vegetables.
  • Maltose = glucose + glucose. Maltose forms naturally when starches break down from complex carbohydrates into simple sugars.


Complex Carbohydrates

Both fibre and starch are complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides), meaning they are made up of many units of sugar and assembled into a long chain. Plant foods, including grains, potatoes and legumes, contain starches.

Sugars and starches are broken down (digested) by your body into simple sugars (one-unit sugars, monosaccharides). So they can be absorbed in your bloodstream and then transported to your cells and converted to energy.

Fibre isn’t completely broken down in your digestive tract, and some of it remains whole in your body because you lack the enzymes to break it down. This actually confers numerous health benefits.


What’s the Difference?

With respect to your health, the difference is where the sugar comes from. While your body can’t distinguish the difference between the source of sugar once it’s broken down and absorbed, the food from which the sugar originated has a huge impact on your overall health. This is due to the nature other nutrients that may be in the food you consumed.

Since complex carbohydrates come from plant-based foods, we know that those foods also contain lots of beneficial nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

The complex carbs are broken down into simple sugars. However, some simple sugars that are added to foods don’t give you any beneficial nutrients. For example, fructose can be found in candies, soda, and other sweets lacking in health-promoting nutrients, but is also present in fruit.

Fructose is added to soft drinks and to sweets, even though fruit contains fructose, fruit is obviously a healthier choice because it’s not solely made up of simple carbohydrates — it also contains fibre, vitamins and antioxidants.

The fibre in the fruit helps slow down the digestion of carbs, and this is why your blood sugar doesn’t spike as much after eating fibre-filled fruit as it does when you drink down a soft drinks or chocolate bar.

Vegetables and grains also contain some simple sugars in addition to their starches, mostly in the form of sucrose, but they also give you a large dose of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants too.

The Bottom Line

When given the option, you should choose complex carbohydrates, such as those found in vegetables, whole grains and legumes, more often than simple carbohydrates. Not only will complex carbohydrates provide a more steady supply of energy and cause a less dramatic increase in your blood glucose levels, the foods in which complex carbs are found also provide a plethora of beneficial nutrients.