Complex Versus Simple Carbohydrates

I got this question at work the other day (we’re a fairly healthy-minded bunch):

What are complex carbs vs simple carbs?

This question seems complex, but the answer is quite simple. Simple carbs and complex carbs end up in the same place of the nutrition facts label, but they are most certainly different.

Are all carbs bad?

Clearly not all carbohydrates are bad. We need carbs to live – glucose (what carbs break down to in your body) is what your body uses for energy. That’s why when you eat a candy bar you get hyper for a little while – your body just got a big dose of easy-to-use energy because the carbs were partially processed before they got to your stomach. Simple carbs and complex carbs both turn into sugar in the body; the process just happens faster for simple carbs.

McDonald's Soft Serve Vanilla Ice Cream Cone

I’m pretty sensitive to sugar (too many sweet treats = too many pimples). In addition to my skin sensitivity to sugar, I also seem to have either a mental or physical reaction to eating it – once I start it’s hard to stop! If I have a McD’s cone as a snack I also want one for dessert that night, for a snack the next day, and forever more. So I try to avoid sugar to avoid sugar cravings and bad acne. When it comes down to complex versus simple carbohydrates, complex is what I choose, especially complex carbs from veggies.

Which carbs are bad for us?

Most scientists agree that the faster carbs (simple, or white carbs; meaning they convert to sugar quickly) are the worst type of carbohydrate. This is mainly because they spike blood sugar, which has a number of negative long-term effects including a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer. These carbs include (and thus I try* to avoid…):

  • Processed carbs like white bread, white flour, sugar, high fructose corn syrup (also regular corn syrup)*
  • Processed carbs like candy, cookies, most baked goods*
  • Fake sweeteners (not technically carbs because they have no calories – but they give me a stomachache, a headache, and it’s probably not good to eat frankenfood chemicals)
I love muffins!
I love muffins!

*I still eat these things, but in moderation when I want them. Artisan bread with smooth creamy butter? On occasion, yes please!

Which carbs are good in moderation?

There is definitely a middle ground when it comes to complex versus simple carbs, and that middle ground is whole grain-y things (for me). They’re not the easiest foods to digest (see IBS), but they certainly are delicious. These guys include:

  • Unprocessed grains like rice (white or brown).* (I grew up hating rice but now I LOVE it. I usually have it several times a week. It’s especially good with ghee, aka clarified butter.)
  • Oatmeal (steel cut, regular – preferably not instant).
  • Winter squash (these are my favorite foods, but it’s easy to get a stomachache if you eat too much of them; squash also has lots of beta-carotene – but beware the orange glow).

I love having rice with veggies, like in bi-bim-bap (pictured above – veggies, egg, beef over rice). In fact, I just like mixing foods together in general. Mix-it-up bowls are possibly the greatest invention ever.

Which carbs are good for us?

Most vegetable carbohydrates are good for our bodies. Some of my favorite carbs are…

  • Root veggies like carrots, parsnips, winter squash (kabocha, acorn, spaghetti, butternut, etc…)
  • Non-root veggies like Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, peppers, yadda yadda yadda… Veggies are a diet staple.
  • Fruits (but not too much). Fruit makes me break out as well in large (more than 1 a day) quantities. Some lower-sugar fruits that I really like are: papaya, blueberries, berries in general, cranberry juice (without sugar) and spritzer, lime/lemon juice and spritzer, melons (cantaloupe, honeydew).


Do you eat a lot of carbs? Do you avoid any? Which are your favorites?

When it comes down to complex carbs vs simple carbs, it’s probably better to choose the complex ones. But remember to include healthy fats (including saturated fat – it’s good for the brain) and protein. Out of the simple carbs, sugar is probably the worst. At least that is what works for me!

11 Replies to “Complex Versus Simple Carbohydrates”

  1. I love this!

    i have gone round and round with carbs. You definately can lose weight if you go carb free but how hard, and painful is that (wow I get grouchy fast on a low gi diet)

    but lately I relaxed the reigns and went no sugar (carb) added and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. I do eat sweetened foods but mostly with fruit or honey and I keep the processed foods at bay. Also IF I do want a brownie or a cookie I just make it and I know I saved myself a lot of chemical-ish type additives that end up hurting my stomach anyways.

    win win.

    great post Maggie!

    1. @Cindy: I’m with you! I get wayyy to grouchy to go very low-carb. Not worth it! No sugar is easier, and makes me feel great 🙂

  2. I eat pretty much paleo but don’t overly restrict carbs because I get really shakey. I get carbs mostly from sweet potatoes, white potatoes and winter squash/pumpkins, I eat fruit every other day and I eat a fair amount of non starchy veg like greens, peppers etc. I experimented last week with some 24 hour soaked brown rice with rice sourdough starter a la WAPF and I still got stomach problems after being symptom free for ages. It was nice enough to eat, but not amazing, and no other grain stuff appeals to me anymore. I used to lament not having something to spread butter onto or have with cheese, but then I started baking little 1/4 inch rounds of sweet potatoes and it’s so good! Grain free nut free ‘crackers’:)

  3. I need carbs because without them I just get really cranky. I noticed that certain fruits make me feel bad though, watermelon being one. It ruins my digestion or something.
    I’d rather not think of any food as “bad” or “good” food though…I don’t need the guilt when I indulge in a muffin. But I think it’s a blessing that we genuinely like food that is “good” for us too.

  4. i eat a lot of carbs but less than i used to because i’ve really focused on adding more protein to my diet. i do eat kabocha every day and suffer that orange glow. it’s so worth it, though!

  5. I think it is funny that fruit makes you break out. I would have a lot less food in my diet. Today (for example) I had an orange, half a banana, 2 figs, 3 small yellow plums, about a kilo of cherries, and two apples. I ate some other stuff too, but I really only crave fruit. It is interesting how all of our bodies work and function differently.

    1. @Claudia: WOW, that would be a lot for me! But if it works for you, that’s awesome 🙂 I adore fruit and I wish I could eat more of it without breaking out. Apples are my favorite!

Comments are closed.