Simple vs Complex Carbohydrates
Oct 15, 2015

Simple vs Complex Carbohydrates

What is a Carbohydrate?

Carbohydrates (or carbs) are sugars, starches, cellulose, and gums. They’re found in foods like vegetables, fruits, rice, potato, honey and even dairy. Often when people think of carbs, they only think of the typical “processed” kinds like white bread, pasta, and pastries, but keep in mind that lots of healthy foods contain carbohydrates. In fact, a typical balanced diet should consist of about 40% of your daily calories from healthy carbohydrate sources.  However, not all carbs are created equal.  The contrast between simple vs complex carbohydrates is that one is a fast burst (simple) and the other is a slow burn (complex) that lasts much longer. It’s like the difference between a drag race and a NASCAR race.

Carbohydrates are an essential part of your diet. They provide quick energy for the body, fueling everything from a long run to everyday functioning. The problem with carbs is that our typical diet is completely overloaded with them, they’re not used to fuel physical activity, and the leftover carbohydrates that you don’t burn for energy cause a problem: they’re stored as fat.

Excess carbohydrates in the body go through a complex process to become glycogen. Glycogen itself isn’t fat. It’s a type of glucose that can be stored in your liver or muscles. That glycogen can be burned up for a quick energy source—ever heard of carb loading? It’s the reason that racers often have spaghetti the night before a run. This carb-heavy meal makes sure that their glycogen stores are full for their endurance event the next day. If someone is eating too many carbs on a regular basis, however, those extras that aren’t burned for energy can’t keep being stored as glycogen, and they eventually become body fat.

Simple vs Complex Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates are broken down very quickly by your body, which can be processed easily and become a fast source of fuel. But if you are eating them and then doing nothing, that spike in energy from the high level of blood sugar that forms will not be burned off, and will then become stored fat. Simple carbohydrates come from fruit, dairy, white flour, pasta, and bread, and sweets.

Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, burn more slowly. The slow burn of complex carbohydrates gives you a more constant energy source and keeps you from feeling that lull that comes after a junky, carbohydrate-loaded meal. The reason it does this is because complex carbohydrates contain fiber, which helps to slow the release of sugar. This slower release gives you a constant energy level and doesn’t overload your system with sugars that end up getting stored as fat. Look for healthy sources like vegetables, nuts, beans, sweet potatoes, and 100% whole grains.

The average person would use around 40% of their daily calories from healthy carbohydrate sources during a workday where they’re up and around a bit, with maybe a decent walk for a recommended amount of exercise. People who expend more energy can intake more carbs without storing them as fat. Endurance athletes, for instance, tend to use energy gels or wafers every hour or so because they are using so many extra carbs for energy. Consuming an extra dose of easily burnable fuel can help you run or bike faster and longer.

If you’re not an active person, however, you don’t need the extra sugar to sustain your typical energy levels. If you do feel like you need a boost, try snacking on nuts or berries that have some carbs, and also bring along a high quantity of vitamins and other health benefits. In the meanwhile, enjoy those complex carbs!

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