Carbohydrates are poised as enemy number one when it comes to weight loss. Every time we devour a croissant, we curse the flaky, buttery crumbs, and ourselves. But not all carbs are created equal. The differences between simple and complex carbs are major and make all the difference when it comes to how our bodies react to each.
But before you simply cut out the food group all together, consider that our bodies need carbs to function. And you should definitely eat a hearty intake of them daily.
So, to help you play good carb, bad carb, we asked registered dietitian Abbey Sharp to break down which carbs you should eat and which you should maybe avoid.
Your body needs carbs.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45 to 65 percent of daily calorie intake should come from carbs. The sugar from carbs fuels your brain. “By choosing the right carbohydrates, we can actually improve our health and sense of wellbeing,” says Sharp, adding that ingesting complex carbs may help decrease sweets cravings, too.
In fact, diets too low in carbs can be detrimental. Low carb diets can miss out on essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which can leave you feeling low on energy. The goal, instead, is to focus on a balanced diet that includes complex carbs, as well as some simple carbs.
So, what are simple carbohydrates?
Basically, simple carbohydrates, also known as “bad carbs”, contain double-chained sugars and hold virtually no nutritional value. “Because simple carbs don’t have any fiber or protein attached to them to slow down absorption, they’re absorbed immediately into the bloodstream to deliver instant energy,” says Sharp. This can cause spikes in blood sugar that leave you feeling faint and hungry shortly after finishing a meal.
So, what foods count as simple carbs? Basically, most processed foods. You might hear of people giving up “white foods.” That usually means they’re giving up carbohydrates made of highly-processed white flour. These include that morning croissant or bagel, regular white bread, pastries, and cakes.
But simple carbs extend beyond obvious starchy foods. Soda, chips, juices, and candy all contain added sugars, which actually count as simple carbs, too. And most of these contain high fructose corn syrup, which is one of the worst sugars for our bodies.
That said, everything in moderation. Feel free to enjoy simple carbs from time to time, but try not to make them your main source of carbohydrates.
What are complex carbohydrates?
The key to choosing complex carbs is focusing on natural foods that have no added sugar. “Carbohydrates rich in fiber help slow the blood sugar and insulin response,” explains Sharp. These carbohydrates are literally more complex than their simpler counterparts. Bound with a protein or a fat, these carbs take longer to absorb. This helps avoid spikes in blood sugar, says Sharp. She suggests we enjoy complex carbs with each meal so we feel less deprived and will be less likely to crave simple carbs.
So, what carbs should you stick to? Sharp recommends eating a variety of whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, barley, and millet. Also enjoy fiber-rich fruit like apples, pears, and berries. And add in starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, root vegetables, and other veggies, like broccoli and brussel sprouts. Sharp’s favorites complex carbs include quinoa and roasted sweet potatoes, which she tosses in salads.
“Complex carbs are made up of long-branched orientations, so your body has to work harder to break these apart,” explains Sharp. This slower absorption process also means you feel fuller and have more energy for longer stretches of time after eating.
Can the body actually tell the difference?
Ultimately, all carbs impact the body’s blood sugar levels. The body processes all sugar the same way and can’t differentiate whether it came from complex or simple carbohydrates. But it’s the speed of the breakdown that makes all the difference. “All carbs will increase the level of sugar in the blood as it’s transported to our muscles for use,” explains Sharp. “The key is that complex carbs do so at a much more controlled rate compared with the highs and lows of simple carbs.”
How can this help my workouts?
Sharp notes that simple carbs may have a place in athletics as they can provide fast bursts of energy. This is why you might see runners ingesting simple carbs in small amounts immediately before races. But they’ll gradually load up on complex carbs days before. “Carbs are important for cardio because they breakdown into glucose, which can fuel your workout,” she says.
Post workout, refuel with complex carbs. “Eating a meal or snack with good carbs within an hour of working out can help us refuel glycogen stores and optimize recovery,” Sharp explains. Her go-to post-workout snack is a piece of fruit with some greek yogurt or a sweet potato with chicken breast for some lean protein.