What you need to know about simple and complex carbohydrates.


Tracking your carbohydrate or carbohydrate intake is a key tool in the fight against diabetes . It is important to know the difference between the two types of carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are found in everything from table sugar to fruits, while complex carbohydrates or starches come from whole grains and vegetables like sweet potatoes.

Each type of carbohydrate raises blood sugar levels, but not in the same way. So whether you are managing carbohydrates by counting them or observing your meals using the MyPlate method or another plan, you need to know how each type of carbohydrate affects your body.

This article explains how simple and complex carbohydrates work. Provides information to help you control your blood sugar, maintain a healthy weight, and prevent diet-related complications.

Get medical information / Alex Dos Diaz

Carbohydrates 101

Carbohydrates, along with protein and fat, are the three main groups of nutrients in the foods we eat. During digestion, all three elements are broken down into elements that the body can use for energy. Protein is converted to amino acids and fat is broken down into fatty acids , which are stored for future use.

Carbohydrates are different. They are broken down into sugars which, after a quick stop in the liver, enter the bloodstream and become a direct source of energy for use by the body's cells. This is why carbohydrates can affect blood sugar levels so quickly and dramatically.

This is why people with diabetes, especially those with type 2 , should watch their carbohydrate intake. In this condition, the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to control blood sugar levels or the body does not respond properly to insulin. In both cases, sugar (glucose) can build up in the bloodstream.

Simple carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates have, as their name suggests, a very simple chemical structure. These can be monosaccharides , which consist of a sugar molecule, like glucose. Or they could be disaccharides , in which two simple sugars are joined, as is the case with lactose (milk sugar).

Simple carbohydrates are fairly easily absorbed by the body. Enzymes in the small intestine break them down before they enter the bloodstream. Any sugar that is not used immediately is stored as fat, and therefore eating foods with a lot of added sugar can contribute to weight gain.

Examples of simple carbohydrates

Many foods contain simple carbohydrates and are a rich source of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. These foods should be part of a proper diabetes diet. Examples include:

  • Fruits
  • Dairy products
  • Some vegetables

However, not all simple sugars are digested at the same rate. Whole fruits contain fiber, so fructose, the simple sugar they contain, is absorbed more slowly by the body. This may have a lesser impact on blood glucose levels than other sources of sugar.

The sugar added to syrups, cookies, and many other processed foods is also a simple carbohydrate. But these tend to be "empty calories" with little nutritional value and are more likely to lead to weight gain and health problems like heart disease. In a healthy diet, added sugar should be avoided.

Complex carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are made up of longer, more complex chains of sugar molecules. They are called oligosaccharides and polysaccharides . Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest than simple ones. This means that they affect blood sugar levels less quickly, causing it to rise more slowly.

Examples of complex carbohydrates

Some complex carbohydrates are better options than others. The healthiest complex carbohydrates are those that have not been processed or refined and include:

  • Whole grains such as brown rice, wild rice, oats, and whole grain barley (not pearl).
  • Cereals such as quinoa (seed) and buckwheat (grass).
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn.
  • Non-starchy vegetables , including everything from asparagus to zucchini.
  • Beans and legumes like lentils, kidney beans, and chickpeas.

Keep in mind that all of these foods are excellent sources of fiber. Fiber helps prevent too high blood sugar levels, helps control cholesterol levels, and is important for digestive health.

When it comes to complex carbohydrates, it is best to avoid or limit refined grains and processed foods made with them. "Refined" means that two of the three elements of each grain kernel (bran and germ) have been removed along with the fiber, healthy fats and nutrients they contain.

The rest of the grain is starchy endosperm. It has less fiber and fewer nutrients, although vitamins and minerals are sometimes added to refined grains. Products made from them are marketed as "fortified", but there is really no substitute for natural grains.

Processed foods made with refined grains include:

  • bagels
  • Cakes, cookies and other pastries.
  • Refined grains
  • Cookies
  • Hamburger buns or hot dogs
  • Pancakes and waffles
  • Pizza dough
  • Rice sandwiches
  • Soft sandwich bread
  • White rice and pasta

Keep in mind that many of these foods are also sources of added sugar, making them even less ideal for blood glucose control.


Carbohydrates, fats and proteins are the main nutrients in our diet. Some carbohydrates are simple and break down quickly into sugars that enter the bloodstream. Other carbohydrates are more complex and release sugar more slowly, preventing big swings in glucose levels.

Balance of simple and complex carbohydrates.

How people react to certain types of carbohydrates, or even certain foods, can vary greatly. This is one of the reasons why there is no one-size-fits-all diabetes diet.

However, when planning meals and snacks , it's best to focus on getting carbohydrates, both simple and complex, from natural, unrefined, and unprocessed sources. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and products made with them, low-fat dairy products, and legumes.

You will know that you are eating nutrient-dense foods that are high in fiber and low in calories and saturated fat. They are more likely to help you control your blood sugar and control your diabetes.

Not all people who "watch their carbohydrates" do so because of diabetes. However, anyone who chooses fresh fruits and whole grains while avoiding processed foods can see the overall benefits of maintaining a healthy and balanced carbohydrate mix.


Carbohydrates are essential for a healthy diet, but they all raise blood sugar levels. Therefore, if you have diabetes, it is important to keep track of your carbohydrate intake and choose healthy sources.

Simple carbohydrates quickly raise blood sugar levels. They are found in some healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and processed foods with added sugar.

Complex carbohydrates are absorbed slowly and do not spike blood sugar levels as sharply. Many whole foods that contain them contain other nutrients such as fiber and vitamins. However, it is better to limit the use of refined grains with starch.

Get the word of drug information

Most people want to make healthy choices for themselves and their families, and this helps them learn how carbohydrates work. This is especially true for people with diabetes because not all carbohydrates are created equal. Knowing the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates will help you maintain a balance between your blood sugar and your life.

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