What are Complex Carbohydrates?
Are those the only carbs I should eat?

What are Complex Carbohydrates, get a List of Complex Carbohydrates, and should you be planning your diet around them? It's not easy to track down these answers, but now you have them! Read on . . .

Carbohydrates fall into two categories based on their chemical structure.

Complex carbohydrates are "starches" and "fiber." They have 3 or more sugar units in their structure. They include oligosaccharides and polysaccharides.

Simple carbohydrates are "sugars." They have 1-2 sugar units in their structure. They include monosaccharides (glucose, fructose, and galactose) and disaccharides (sucrose, lactose, maltose, and trehalose). Simple carbohydrates include sugars, dairy products, and fruits.

complex carbohydrates

List of Complex Carbohydrate Foods

Remember, complex carbohydrates are starches and fiber.

What are complex carbohydrates . . .

Grains:

Flour - all flour. White flour, whole wheat flour, pastry flour, rye flour, rice flour, corn meal, all flour that you can think of.

Breads - all bread. White bread, whole wheat bread, sourdough, rye, all of them.

A lot of baked goods - because they're made from flour. Muffins, cakes, pies, cookies, doughnuts, pastries. Even flour tortillas.

Rice - all rice. White rice, brown rice, wild rice (which actually isn't technically a rice).

Couscous, quinoa, bulgur wheat, barley, millet - all grains.

Nuts and Seeds:

Nuts - all nuts. Peanuts, almonds, pistachios, macadamia nuts, pecans, walnuts - any nut you can come up with.

Seeds - all seeds. Sunflower seeds, . . . (what other seeds do we eat?)

Legumes - all legumes (that pretty much means "beans") Black beans, lima beans, green beans (which I think of more as a vegetable), kidney beans, lentils, lots & lots of beans.  Also peanuts, which are technically legumes but I think most of us consider a nut.

Fruits and Vegetables:

Here is where it gets tricky. Remember, complex carbohydrates means STARCH or FIBER.

Many vegetables are not starchy, but they do contain great fiber. Most fruit contains fructose which is a simple carbohydrate, but they also contain fiber which is a complex carbohydrate.

A food, especially fruits and vegetables, can have BOTH SIMPLE AND COMPLEX carbohydrates.

Also, a complex carbohydrate food can have starch but almost no fiber. And we want fiber.

Starchy Vegetables - White potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, corn, peas, green beans.

Things made from starchy vegetables - french fries, mashed potatoes, corn tortillas and taco shells. (Many of these are starchy but may not have much fiber.)

Vegetables with fiber. Doesn't that pretty much include all of them? Fiber occurs only in plant cells.

Fruit with fiber. Doesn't that pretty much include all of them? Fiber occurs only in plant cells.

*What about juice? Fruit and/or vegetables juices with their fiber removed may fall more into the simple carbohydrate category.

This is the best information about complex carbohydrates that I found anywhere. It's not easy! It's a document from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.http://web.aces.uiuc.edu/vista/pdf_pubs/carb.pdf

What are Complex Carbohydrates? They sound great. Why shouldn't I focus on only them?

Because some complex carbohydrates are actually digested quickly - like things made with white flour or white potatoes or corn.

You can see from the list above that most of our refined junk foods include a complex carbohydrate. They are digested fast - we want slow.

Baked goods are often made from white flour. Cookies, cakes, pastries, doughnuts; you know what I'm talking about. A whole flour (like whole wheat) that contains the germ and bran is much healthier. But they're both complex carbohydrates - see why we can't make a broad statement to eat complex carbs and not simple carbs?

When I order a hamburger, it almost always comes on a white bun (complex carb). Again, this is a refined flour that makes light and fluffy bread but has removed the fiber and a good deal of the nutrients.
 
The french fries that came with my combo meal are a complex carbohydrate. But with the skin removed from the potato, it is digested fast - remember, we want slow.
 
However, we've learned from the list above that many complex carbohydrates are extremely healthy and digested slowly. Good news! We can enjoy eating brown rice, potatoes with the skin left on, bulgur wheat, quinoa, and all nuts and seeds. And many more!


Why should I eat simple carbohydrates, too?

Yes, simple carbohydrates include sugar which is digested rapidly. This includes white refined sugar, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup and sugar, molasses. We want to limit these in our diets.

BUT simple carbohydrates also include fructose (found in fruits) and galactose and lactose (found in dairy products). We definitely want to be eating whole fruits and dairy products. Stop eating an apple a day - no! Give up yogurt - no!

Some simple carbohydrates are digested nice and slowly; that's what we want. Some are digested fast.


Shall we make it a little more complicated?

The combinations of food you eat make a difference, too.

Still wondering what are complex carbohydrates?

For awhile, I rarely fed my family white potatoes or corn.

But hey, they have nutrition, too! And when eaten in a meal with a protein, a little fat, and a slowly-digested carbohydrate, it actually evens out. Yes, white mashed potatoes won't give you a spike in blood sugar when you eat them with chicken and a salad.


Give up "Simple" and "Complex"

It's not a good tool to use when choosing (or ruling out) groups of foods for our diets. Why? Because there are good foods in both groups.

What is a better tool? The Glycemic Index shows how rapidly or slowly a carbohydrate is digested. It's a good idea to pick foods that are LOW on the glycemic index. Click here for more info.

Another good guideline (not a law, just a guideline) is to pick foods with fiber. Most of us don't get enough fiber, so focusing on that aspect when choosing food gets us closer to where we should be. Don't go overboard; I still drink orange juice more often than eating a whole orange, but I eat an apple way more often than drink apple juice. Life is all about balancing our choices.

What are complex carbohydrates? One of my many choices of good food to eat.


What are Complex Carbohydrates? Now you know.

They're good for you, especially when they include fiber. But Simple Carbohydrates also include healthy foods like fruits and dairy products.

Return to Definition of Carbohydrates (from What Are Complex Carbohydrates)

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