Simple Carbohydrates vs. Complex Carbohydrates

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on March 30, 2015Written by Kristeen Cherney on March 30, 2015


Carbohydrates are a major macronutrient and one of your body’s primary sources of energy. Still, there is a constant weight loss buzz that discourages eating them. The key is finding the right carbs — not avoiding them altogether.

You may have heard that eating complex carbs is better than simple carbs. The problem is that nutrition labels don’t tell you if the carbohydrate content is simple or complex. Either way, understanding how these foods are classified and how they work in your body can help ensure you choose the right carbs.

Understanding Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are an important nutrient found in numerous types of foods. Most of us equate carbs with bread and pasta, but you can also find them in:

Carbohydrates are made up of three components: fiber, starch, and sugar. Fiber and starch are complex carbs, while sugar is a simple carb. Depending on how much of each of these is found in a food determines its nutrient quality.

Simple Carbs = Simplistic Nutrition

Simple carbs are sugars. While some of these occur naturally in milk, most of the simple carbs in the American diet are added to foods. Common simple carbs added to foods include:

Simple Carb Foods to Avoid

Try to avoid some of the most common refined sources of simple carbs and look for alternatives to satisfy those sweet cravings:


1. Soda:

Choose water flavored with lemon instead.

2. Baked Treats:

Satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit.

3. Packaged Cookies:

Bake your own goods using substitutes like applesauce or sweeteners, or look for other mixes that contain more complex carbs. Try our recipe for lemon cardamom cookies, or maybe even our parsnip cookies!

4. Fruit Juice Concentrate:

An easy way to avoid fruit concentrate is to look closely at nutrition labels. Always choose 100 percent fruit juice, or, even easier, make your own at home! Try our recipe for kiwi strawberry juice.

5. Breakfast Cereal:

Breakfast cereals tend to be loaded with simple carbohydrates. If you just can’t kick the habit, check out our rundown of breakfast cereals, from the best to the worst for your health.

The More Complex, the Better

Complex carbs pack in more nutrients than simple carbs, because they are higher in fiber and digest more slowly. This also makes them more filling, which means they’re a good option for weight control. They are also ideal for people with type 2 diabetes because they help manage post-meal blood sugar spikes.

Fiber and starch are the two types of complex carbohydrates. Fiber is especially important because it promotes bowel regularity and helps to control cholesterol. The main sources of dietary fiber include:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • nuts
  • beans
  • whole grains

Starch is also found in some of the same foods as fiber. The difference is certain foods are considered more starchy than fibrous, such as potatoes. Other high-starch foods are:

  • whole wheat bread
  • cereal
  • corn
  • oats
  • peas
  • rice

Complex carbohydrates are key to long-term health. They make it easier to maintain your weight, and can even help guard against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.

Complex Carbs You Should Eat More Of


Be sure to include the following complex carbohydrates as a regular part of your diet:

1. Grains:

Grains are good sources of fiber, as well as potassium, magnesium, and selenium. Choose less processed, whole grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and whole-wheat pasta.

2. Fiber-Rich Fruits:

Such as apples, berries, and bananas (avoid canned fruit, as they usually contain added syrup).

3. Fiber-Rich Vegetables:

Eat more of all your veggies, including broccoli, leafy greens, and carrots.

4. Beans:

Aside from fiber, these are good sources of folate, iron, and potassium. 

Choosing the right carbs can take time and practice. With a little bit of research and a keen eye for nutrition labels, you can start making healthier choices that will energize your body and protect it from long-term complications.

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