You’ve probably heard the words simple and complex thrown around when it comes to carbohydrates. As well as sugars, starches and fibre. They’re all carbohydrates, but they’re all very different when it comes to their nutritional value and health benefits.
The 3 types of Carbohydrates
Sugars : These are the simplest forms of carbohydrates. Some good examples are glucose, sucrose (found in table sugar and in some fruits, vegetables and grains) as well as fructose (the sugar found in fruit), lactose (the sugar found in milk and other dairy products) and maltose (what our starches are broken down into). Glucose and fructose are absorbed straight into our body and don’t require any enzymes to break them down.
Starches : These are carbohydrates from plant food (including grains) that are made up of lots of little units of sugars joined together like a chain. After you digest starch it’s broken down into single units of glucose. Some starches are digested slowly, and others really fast, spiking your blood sugar levels. Examples of starch would be vegetables (potatoes), bread, pasta and grains, beans, corn, legumes, and green bananas. Some of these vegetables and grains contain simple sugars in addition to starches, but they also contain a lot of vitamins and minerals which are important for our body.
Fibre : The last type of carbohydrate and can be found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains. It’s got a lot of health benefits. Some fibre is soluble, it ferments in the large intestine, attracts water and turns to gel. It slows down the absorption of carbohydrate in your diet, keeping your blood sugar levels nice and steady (great for type 2 diabetes). It also interferes with your body’s ability to absorb fat and cholesterol, so can keep your blood cholesterol levels low. Sources of soluble fibre are fruits, vegetables, oat bran, barley, seed husks, flaxseed, psyllium, dried beans, lentils, peas, soy milk and soy products. Some fibre is insoluble and isn’t digested – it’s job is to keep food waste moving through your intestine, keeping your bowel movements healthy and reduce the risks of cancer and other disease. Insoluble fibre sources would be wheat bran, vegetables, and whole grains.
Ultimately, eating a lot of fibre keeps you feeling full and you can see it is REALLY important to your health. Recommended daily intakes of Fibre are 25g/day for women, 30g/day for men, 20-28g/day for pre-teens and adolescents, 14-18g/day for young children 1-8 yrs. Most of us aren’t eating enough fibre. If you do increase your fibre, do it slowly and drink a lot of water to avoid stomach upset. Fibre is also often found in carbohydrate foods alongside starches and simple sugars. See how they all overlap?
Ultimately, nearly all carbohydrates (except some types of insoluble fibre) are broken down into the simplest units of sugar and transported around your body in your blood for energy. But even though they all end up as the same form in your body, they’re not all created equal. You see, some some carbohydrates also contain a lot of other vitamins, minerals and fibre that are really important for your body. These are the one’s we want to eat more of. I’ll explain that next.
Simple or Complex Carbs?
Ok so carbohydrate basics covered, now this is where it starts getting interesting !
These are often made up of simple sugars – table sugar, raw sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup and high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, lactose (milk sugar), fructose (fruit sugar), sugar and fruit juice concentrate. Examples of foods containing a lot of simple carbs would be baked goods, lollies, soft drinks, packaged cookies, sugary breakfast cereals, white refined breads and pasta. They don’t need much in the way of digestion to be broken down into single sugar units (glucose) to enter your blood stream. They also don’t contain many other vitamins, minerals or fibre for your body. So there is very little benefit to eating them other than acting as a filler, or if you’re a top athlete and need a lot of energy or stored glucose for an endurance training session. These are what I refer to as ’empty carb’s. If our aim is to make sure that every mouthful counts in terms of nutritional value alongside energy for our body, they are quite empty. I place white bread and pasta here as there are far better grains to be eating, with lots of nutritional value and fibre.
Whilst fruit and milk contain simple carbs, they also contain a lot of vitamins and minerals (and in the case of fruit – a lot of fibre too). Dairy is so very important for calcium, if we don’t get enough calcium, especially in our youth, our bones can’t grow strong and we’re at risk of osteoporosis later in life – this is a real problem amongst the ageing in Australia. So I don’t believe in banning milk and fruit for reducing sugar intake. I’d much rather that you limit ‘added sugars’ to your diet, as the sugars from fruit and milk are of little consequence to the benefit of the nutrients they are contributing to your diet. Having said that – fruit juice or fruit smoothies does not equate to fruit. Eat fruit whole, with the skin on, to get all the fibre benefit, compared to juices which lose much of the nutritional value and often contain a lot of added sugars.
Added sugars – these would be those simple carbs above like baked goods, lollies, soft drinks, smoothies, sugary yoghurts, etc. The aim here is to consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar per day to reduce the risk of obesity and disease including diabetes and cancer (World Health Organisation Recommendations). 4g = one teaspoon, so our daily limit of added sugar is around 24g of sugar per day, excluding sugar from wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, and milk. How much are you eating?
When it comes to the carbohydrates in our diet, the more complex the better. These are our starches and fibres. They contribute energy, but also a lot of vitamins, minerals and fibre which in turn result in a lot of health benefits. Research has shown that diets high complex carbs result in reduced cholesterol, lower risk of heart disease, better bowel movements, reduced risk of disease including cancer, balanced blood sugar levels, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, and the list goes on.
The complex carbs we want to eat a lot of are
- Whole Grains such as quinoa, buckwheat, and 100% wholegrain pasta or bread.
- Fibre rich Fruit such as berries, bananas, apples. In addition to vitamins and minerals, these are also a great source of antioxidants which act like scavengers in our body eating up all the bad guys (called free radicals) which are produced from bad lifestyle habits (stress, alcohol, pollution, smoking etc).
- Fibre rich vegetables such as broccoli, leafy greens, carrots – packed full of vitamins and minerals.
- Beans – these guys contribute a lot of fibre as well as folate, iron and potassium.
- Nuts and Seeds (be careful with too many nuts as they have a high fat content)
Ok – so which are the Good Carbs vs the Bad Carbs ?
It’s not as simple as saying simple vs complex carbs. As simple carbs such as milk and fruit are really important parts of a healthy, balanced, nutrition rich diet. Lets just agree that we want our carbs to be mostly complex and full of fibre and nutrients, whilst ensuring we get enough of our healthy simple carbs, also full of fibre and nutrients, in the form of dairy and fruit. Whilst staying away from simple carbs, with no fibre or nutrient value, as much as possible to reduce the amount of ‘added sugar’ in our diet (such as baked goods, lollies, sugary foods, soft drinks, white breads and pastas).
Here’s a little table to help you out.
|Good Carbs – Maximise||Bad Carbs – Minimise|
|Fruit (skin on)||Lollies, chocolates|
|Vegetables (skin on)||Pastries, cakes, biscuits|
|Milk (full fat where possible)||Jams, dried fruit (full of added sugar)|
|100% whole grains like Quinoa, Buckwheat||Fruit juices and drinks, Cordials|
|Brown Rice||Refined Grains like white Rice|
|100% whole grain breads and Pasta||Refined white Breads and Pasta|
|Natural Yoghurt, low sugar yoghurt (avoid low fat yoghurt it has lots of sugar added)||Yoghurts with lots of sugar added|
|Beans, Legumes||Desserts, puddings, ice creams, iceblocks|