Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrates

The argument about simple and complex carbohydrates, and which type is better, has been going on for decades. In fact, each has its purpose. Before we even get into the pros and cons of each, you need to understand what simple and complex carbohydrates actually are.

Simple Carbohydrates

Simple carbs are high on the glycemic index, which means they are digested quickly and released into the bloodstream, resulting in a spike in both insulin and blood glucose. Examples of simple carbs include most breads (especially white), white rice, soda, candy, cookies, honey, syrup, carrots, and most processed foods.

Baked goods made with white flour are simple carbohydrates.
Baked goods made with white flour are simple carbohydrates.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbs are the opposite of simple carbs. They are low on the glycemic index, which means they are absorbed and released into the bloodstream more slowly. Complex carbohydrates include brown rice, sourdough bread, rye bread, most vegetables, oatmeal, whole grain pasta, sweet potatoes, and beans.

Most vegetables are complex carbohydrates.
Most vegetables are complex carbohydrates.
Simple Carbs
Complex Carbs
Brown Rice
White Bread
Sweet Potatoes
Most processed foods

Pros of Simple Carbohydrates

  • A simple carbohydrate is good for immediate energy.
  • Simple carbohydrates increase insulin, which helps drive glucose and nutrients into muscles to be used for fuel and recovery.

Cons of Simple Carbohydrates

  • A rise in glucose leads to a rise in insulin, which tells your body that it has been fed. Your body then absorbs the glucose in your muscle and fat cells. So a rise in glucose/insulin can result in fat gain.
  • With the rise in glucose, your body slows down the process of burning fat for fuel and continues to add glucose to fat and muscle cells.
  • Since insulin moves glucose from the blood to fat and muscle cells, it can leave you feeling low-energy and tired.
  • Now not all simple carbohydrates are bad. Fruit and milk both have some simple carbohydrates in them. They also have some complex carbohydrates.

Pros of Complex Carbohydrates

  • They are digested more slowly so they leave you feeling more satisfied throughout the day.
  • They are better for digestion and absorption because they take longer to break down.
  • They provide you with a more consistent energy throughout the day, so no sugar crashes.
  • Complex carbs generally carry more vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
  • They won't lead to insulin spikes that can cause fat gain.

Cons of Complex Carbohydrates

  • Because they are digested more slowly, you may not feel full right away.
  • They are not ideal if you need energy right away.
  • Since they are digested more slowly, they don't lead to as big an insulin response. Your body does not get fuel and nutrients as quickly.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, complex carbohydrates seem like a far better option, but simple carbohydrates have their time and place as well.

Simple carbohydrates will benefit someone like a bodybuilder who is looking to add size and muscle. After a workout, your body has been depleted of its glucose and glycogen stores. Eating a fast-digesting carbohydrate will increase your insulin response, which will drive glucose, protein, and amino acids into the muscle cells to help them recover. Insulin will also drive those same nutrients into fat cells, just not as many because your muscles need them more This is why chocolate milk is good after a workout. It has the simple carb to increase your insulin and milk which has the protein that your muscles need to recover.

Complex carbohydrates are ideal for everyone throughout the day, especially those who want to lose weight and burn fat. Since complex carbs digest slowly, they keep you feeling more satisfied throughout the day. This helps people avoid over-eating. They also supply you with key vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which is healthy for your digestive tract.

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