What to Know About Complex Carbs vs Simple Carbs

Before you ditch the carbs to try to achieve your fitness goals, learn about complex vs simple carbs so you can incorporate both into your diet and still achieve your goals!

What to Know About Complex Carbs vs Simple Carbs
Evelyn Valdez Evelyn Valdez
8 min read

Carbohydrates, love them or hate them, are a major macronutrient that has a crucial role in the body – it's the primary source of energy! With the increasing popularity of low-carb diets, like Keto and the Atkins diet, many see carbs as the bad guy that causes weight gain and loads of other health problems, but what most people forget is that it depends on what type of carbs and how much of them you eat. Eating carbs, the good ones, are a crucial part of a healthy diet, especially for those who are trying to build muscle and strength! Even the bad carbs can provide some good (like they satisfy your cravings), in moderation that is!

There are two main types of carbohydrates - simple and complex. Their names refer to their microscopic structure, but most people refer to them as good carbs and bad carbs. However, like complex carbs, simple carbs have important nutrients too! This is why you shouldn't really refer to them as bad, or ditch them altogether. Carbs, any kind, can all be a part of a healthy balanced diet. So, instead of telling you to ditch the carbs in an effort to reach your fitness goals, we're going to give you a complete breakdown of complex carbs vs simple carbs, so you can figure out how to incorporate both into your diet and still achieve your goals!

What are simple carbohydrates?

As the name implies, they are simple structures, not complex. They are made from only a few different building blocks of carbs (monomers). The small molecules consist of a single or of two monosaccharides linked together. When they are linked together they are called disaccharides. That's a lot of big words, but they're important, so bear with us... We all know or have heard of glucose. Well, glucose is a monosaccharide, as is fructose and galactose! Lactose, sucrose, and maltose are disaccharides. So simple carbs are essentially made up of these basic sugars! As you can probably guess by now, these are known as bad carbs.

One good thing about simple carbs, aside from being delicious, is that they are easily digested and most of the sugars are processed to be used as energy. In fact, this is why some athletes and lifters consume simple carbs post or pre-workout. Some even like to have a pre-workout snack with simple carbs for a quick boost of energy, or post-workout to help refuel glycogen stores. Although there have been studies that prove pre and post-workout carbs aren't necessary or beneficial, some still find that consuming minimal simple carbs before or after their workout to be helpful for exercise performance.

So, if our bodies use sugar from these carbs as energy, why are they considered to be bad for you? Well, if you over-consume them, or if you're just eating and sitting on the couch watching tv, then the sugar that isn't used right away is converted into fat. Thus contributing to weight gain when they are overeaten, this is why doctors always advise eating minimal simple carbs... but before you ban these foods from your life forever, there are actually a few good ones you should eat regularly.

Simple carb sources

Simple carbs are usually seen as the kind of carbs that’ll wreck your diet (like that donut or ice cream that seems to scream your name every time you start your diet). They are, but they're plenty of good ones!

Fruits and some vegetables are considered simple carbs because of the naturally occurring sugar found in them. They provide good nutritional value and are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients. Obviously, the sugars found in these foods are naturally occurring and different from cakes and cookies that have a ton of added sugars. The reason these simple carbs are different from desserts is because fruits have a high fiber content which changes the way the body processes simple sugar from fruits and baked goods. The sugar in fruit is digested slowly and has a minimal effect on blood glucose levels. Opposed to sucrose, and other added sugars, found in baked goods.

With that being said, continue eating simple carbs from fruits and vegetables, but limit these from your diet:

  • Soda
  • Candy
  • Cereals
  • Pastries/Desserts - cookies, cakes, ice cream, etc
  • Energy drinks
  • Sweetened teas and fruit juices
  • Table sugar

These types of carbs can be enjoyed on occasion, try to limit them to avoid weight gain and health-related diseases.

What are complex carbohydrates?

Simple carbs are made up of simple structures, whereas complex carbs are made up of long, complex chains of sugar molecules. This makes the digestion process longer than when digesting simple carbs. Complex carbohydrates don't have an immediate impact on blood sugar, it actually makes it rise slowly. This is why they're often referred to as good carbs.

What are the benefits of complex carbs?

Complex carbs, opposed to simple, provide more nutrients and help keep you full longer, thanks to the high grams of fiber and starch they contain. And as you know now, these are the good carbs that you should prioritize in your diet. Aside from helping with weight loss, eating complex carbs high in fiber and other nutrients can help...

  • Promote regular bowel movements
  • Keep your blood sugar leveled
  • Regulate cholesterol levels.
  • Reduce sugar highs and crashes
  • Curb sweet cravings
  • Keep you full longer
  • Make overeating a thing of the past
  • Give steady, long-lasting energy throughout the day
  • Keep your immune system strong

Honestly, these carbs do so much for your health, so make sure to include enough of them in your diet!

Complex carb sources

Complex carbs are usually accompanied by lots of fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and although there are some good-tasting starchy carbs, you need to balance them with non-starchy green vegetables in order to reap the benefits they have to offer.

Here are the best sources of complex carbohydrates:

  • Non-starchy vegetables: All the greens, everything from asparagus to zucchini.
  • Whole grains: Wild and brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain barley, whole-wheat bread, etc.
  • Quinoa
  • Starchy vegetables: Potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn.
  • Legumes: Black beans, chickpeas, lentils.

Complex carbs are great, but you should try to avoid or limit processed foods made from "refined grains". This simply means that two of the three elements of each kernel of grain have been removed. They include bran and germ which are important sources of fiber and healthy fats. So, as always, read the nutrition label to ensure it's not refined or has any hidden sugars in the breads or pastas you're buying. A good tip to follow is to choose whole-grain or whole-wheat bread and pasta over white flour.

Tips for making healthy carb choices

Understanding complex vs simple carbs is one way to discern which carbs you should prioritize, and which ones you should limit. But if you have certain fitness goals you want to attain, or simply want to eat healthier, here are more tips on how to make healthier carbohydrate choices:

  • Track your macros! If you want to ensure you're making the right choices, consider tracking your macronutrients. This involves calculating your macros based on certain information, like fitness goals and activity level, to get target macros you need to aim to eat in order to reach your goals. Tracking your macros will allow you to know the carb content of the food you're eating, and it'll also help you plan your meals better. That way if you want to treat yourself with ice cream or a baked good, then you can account for it in your macros and fit it into your meals.
  • Learn how to read nutrition labels! Knowing how to read nutrition labels will help you make better choices. Although you should aim to eat mostly whole foods, a lot of carbs are considered processed. And knowing how to read a nutrition label will help you determine which carbs you should eat and which to avoid. For some pointers, look at the fiber content and added sugars. The key to a good carb is a low sugar, and high fiber content.
  • Learn how to substitute your old favorites with new ones! If you love all things carbs like pasta, sandwiches, pastries, french toast, pancakes, etc, then start looking for some healthier recipes. Swap your regular pasta for chickpea pasta or a whole grain option. Instead of white bread use Ezekial bread (sprouted grain), it's higher in fiber and protein! You can also use Ezekial or whole-wheat bread for french toast. These are all good ways to limit your simple carb consumption while still enjoying the foods you love!

In summary, carbs - simple and complex - are part of a healthy balanced diet. There is no winner between complex carbs vs simple carbs. Yes, one is considered better than the other, but both provide the important nutrients you need. The key is to focus on getting most of your carbs from natural, unrefined, and unprocessed sources, like the ones we've mentioned! But also maintaining a balanced diet by incorporating the carbs you do like in a smart manner. Oh, and as a word of caution, as great as complex carbs are you MUST remember, they are still carbs which means you should prepare them appropriately and watch how much of them you eat. Again, a great way to ensure you're getting enough, and not overeating, is by calculating and tracking your macros! Do this and you should be on your way to leaving behind the cravings and mid-day crashes that simple sugars and sweeteners from processed carbs cause!

Frequently asked questions

What time of day is best to eat complex carbohydrates?

Really lunch and dinner are the prime time for these complex carbs, but having them for breakfast isn’t going to hurt by any means either. However, most people prefer simple carbs, like fruit, in the morning for quick energy that they can burn throughout the day.

Why are complex carbohydrates better?

Both are good, but complex carbs are known to be better for you than simple carbs because the food sources are more nutrient-dense and provide lasting energy more effectively. Carbs' main purpose is to provide the body with lasting energy, complex carbs are able to do it more effectively than simple carbs because they raise blood glucose levels steadily and longer. They're also high in dietary fiber which helps stabilize blood sugar levels, helps cholesterol levels, and when paired with healthy eating habits it can decrease your risk of heart disease.

BUT not all complex carbs are good for you. They can be found in refined foods like white bread and white rice. So remember to stick to unrefined, unprocessed complex carbs.

Can I still eat simple carbohydrates?

Yes! Simple carbs aren't always bad for you, there are many nutritional food sources that are considered simple carbs. A few include pomegranates, apples, strawberries, melons, and dairy products.

It's okay to have other simple carbs in moderation but always prioritize unrefined and unprocessed simple carbs.

Should I consume simple carbs pre or post-workout?

That depends... In short, we do not suggest consuming simple carbs pre-workout. There are other, better, sources of energy that you can choose. Like instead of having a quick pre-workout snack, time your meal filled with protein and complex carbs 2-3 hours before your workout. This will ensure that you have sustainable energy, opposed to just a quick burst of energy that simple carbs provide. You can also have a scoop of your favorite pre-workout beforehand if you really need a boost in energy.

As for post-workout, you can consume simple carbs, but it's not necessary. After intense training, your glycogen stores are low and need to be replenished in order to prevent muscle breakdown. This doesn't mean eat your favorite dessert after working out, instead pick a simple or complex carb that is not processed. Those who lift heavy or take part in any high-intensity training like to replenish their glycogen stores by having a post-workout protein shake with some type of simple carb, typically a fruit.

Our suggestion, have a nutritious, well-balanced meal (if you're not doing a fasted workout) 2-3 hours before your workout and a post-workout snack with a simple carb. This will help provide you with sustainable energy for your workout and maximize post-workout muscle recovery!