Complex Carbohydrates

The term "complex carbohydrates" is often tossed around by nutritionists, diet gurus and other healthy eating experts. The basis of the term is the chemical structure of these nutrients, and how we differentiate one type of carb from another.

Here is a short primer on what this concept actually means to you and your desire for a healthy diet.

Categorizing carbs

Carbohydrates are organic compounds that can be divided into three groups—starches, sugars, and fiber.

Another way of saying this is that we have complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates. Simple carbs can be monosaccharides (“one sugar”) or, when they are composed of two monosaccharides, they are called disaccharides (“two sugars”).

Complex carbs are polysaccharides (“many sugars”) and are composed of long chains of monosaccharides, that can either be straight or branched. They are called complex carbohydrates, because of their more complex chemical structure compared to simple carbs.

Starches and Fibers are not simple

Now you know that complex carbs are starches and fibers. Starches are stored by the plants that we eat, and so, come almost exclusively from plant foods. Fibers make up the structures of plants and also come mostly from vegetable sources. 

Fiber appears in your diet in two forms, "soluble fiber" and "insoluble fiber." Both types of fiber are essential to a healthy eating lifestyle. 

Click here for more information about fiber.

Glycemic Index

There is another issue with regard to carbohydrates that has become popular in recent years. This is something called the Glycemic Index. This is a way of measuring how fast the sugar from carbohydrates gets into your bloodstream, another way of saying whether or not they are complex carbohydrates.

This may be important in weight loss and control of diabetes, because of its affect on insulin, the hormone produced by your pancreas that allows the glucose to enter the cells and provide energy. I mention this here, because,generally the more complex the carb, the more slowly it is broken down to become glucose in your blood.

It is for this reason that in a healthy eating lifestyle, we are encouraged to include more complex carbohydrates in our diet and fewer of the simpler carbohydrates.

Click on this link for more information on the Glycemic Index.

Fun Fact: Your body converts polysaccharides to glucose through the process of digestion. If you hold a piece of bread or cracker on your tongue, it will start to taste sweet as the saliva in your mouth begins to breakdown the starch (more complex carb) and make it into sugar (simple carb).

Complex Carbohydrates and your diet

Because carbs have gotten such a bad reputation in recent years, you may not understand that many carbohydrate foods are actually good for you. More than that, you need carbohydrate foods in order to have energy and to get all of the vitamins, minerals and fiber that your body needs to be healthy and feel good. You will also find that most of the protective substances—the phyto-nutrients—are found in carbohydrate foods.

In addition, if your diet is out of balance with too much protein and fat, and not enough carbs, you may have symptoms such as a headache, bad breath, and even muscle weakness, lack of energy and mental confusion.

While it is a good idea to avoid the empty calories of simple carbs such as table sugar and white flour, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to be aware of how even nutritious foods can affect your insulin levels, there are a lot of excellent carbohydrate foods—even high glycemic ones—for you to choose from.

In fact, many nutritionists suggest that you maintain a 40%-30%-30% balance of carbohydrates, protein and fats respectively. Rather than avoiding carbs, just be sure that you are more often choosing the more complex carbs—fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains—and limiting your intake of sugar and white flour products.

Helpful hint:  And here’s a tip. If you eat the nutritious but higher glycemic carbs with a bit of fat and protein, they will digest more slowly and not affect your insulin levels as drastically. For instance, if you eat fruit with cheese or nuts as a snack, you will get the benefit of the fruit without drastically affecting your insulin levels. (Of course, the fiber in the fruit when eaten whole will help regulate blood sugar, too!)

Click here to go from Complex Carbohydrates page to Healthy Grains page.