“Not all carbohydrates were created equal”: Simple and complex carbs

Carbohydrates (CHOs) are our main source of energy and therefore play a vital role in having a balanced and healthy diet. There are two distinct types: simple and complex.

Why are simple and complex CHOs different?

The differentiation relates to their ability to be broken down by the gut. A simple CHO, such as white pasta, is quickly digested by the gut, which in turn leads to a large spike in energy and blood glucose levels. However, this spike is temporary, which will leave you craving more fast-energy food shortly after. A complex CHO, such as quinoa, will be digested more slowly by the gut due to its higher fibre content. Due to the slower digestion, a complex CHO will give you a steadier release of energy whilst the fibre moving more slowly through your gut keeps you fuller for longer. 

You’ll have heard of GI – this is your Glycaemic Index, which indicates a food’s effect on a person’s blood glucose levels. Most simple CHOs have a higher GI, meaning that they will be rapidly digested, absorbed and metabolised, and will result in larger fluctuations in blood sugar levels. In comparison, complex CHOs have a low GI and therefore produce smaller fluctuations in your blood glucose and insulin levels. This will give you sustainable energy levels throughout the day and reduce cravings for sugary snacks.

Replacing simple with complex carbohydrates leads to long term health, maintenance of weight loss, lower levels of fatigue and a reduction in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Of course, there is always an exception to the rule and in this instance it’s the sweet potato. The sweet potato is classed as a complex CHO but it is higher on the GI scale. In spite of this, its high levels of fibre mean you also remain full for longer. Win-win! In addition, greater levels of vitamins and minerals are found in the sweet potato compared to its white counterpart.

Simple CHOs to eat less of in your diet: 

  • Sugar, biscuits, sweets
  • White pasta, white rice, pilau rice, white bread, ciabatta

Complex CHOs to include in your diet:

  • Whole-wheat pasta, wholemeal bread, sweet potatoes
  • Wholegrain rice, basmati rice, quinoa, buckwheat, whole-wheat couscous
  • Rice cakes, Ryvitas
  • Oats