Complex Vs Simple Carbs. Which One is Healthier?

complex carbs

Table of Contents

While the last post was an introduction to the world of carbs, it doesn’t tell the whole story. When pro and anti carb audiences debate, the conversation will almost always involve at least one of following terms:

  • Complex carbs vs simple carbs.
  • Glycemic index.
  • Insulin spike.
  • Anabolic window.

And this is all great and fun. But, those terms often get thrown around without a fundamental understanding of what means what or the mechanisms behind each. While I may not be a scientist or the most knowledgeable person in this field, but I think I know enough to discuss this subject. First, let’s discuss what each term means.

Simple Carbs

When people mention simple carbs, they are usually referring to low quality sugar-based foods and beverages. Some examples are: juices, white rice, white pasta, white flour, candy, sugar…etc. The list goes on. In reality, simple carbs refer to carbohydrates that have a simple chemical structure. As a result, your body breaks those starches down faster and easier, which then causes a quick and high insulin spike.

Complex Carbs

When someone mentions complex carbohydrates, he/she is usually referring to high quality carbohydrate sources such as: brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, vegetables, fruits, legumes…etc. In reality, complex carbs refer to carbohydrates that have a complex chemical structure. Thus, the body has a harder time digesting those foods and breaking down those chains, which ultimately causes a weaker insulin spike and more stable blood glucose levels.

Insulin spike

The definition of insulin spike is very easy. Insulin spike refers to the increase of your blood insulin levels after consuming a meal, or more specifically, eating carbs. The theory is that simple carbs cause a much higher and faster insulin spike as opposed to complex carbs. While this is mostly true, it’s not in some cases.

Anabolic window

“Anabolic window” refers to the 30-60 minutes after your workout session. The theory among weight lifters is that during this time, your body needs nutrients the most and it will absorb whatever you throw it and to maximize muscle gains and fat loss, one must ingest some “fast-acting protein” and some simple carbs to spike insulin as fast as possible and thus take advantage of this window. Otherwise, you will miss out on “dem gains” bruh! While this is mere speculation, the idea is definitely intriguing. However, keep this term in mind because we will discuss at a later chapter.

Glycemic index

Glycemic index refers to the effect of a certain food on blood glucose levels. That scale ranges from 1 to 100. The higher the score of a certain food on this scale, the higher insulin spike it causes. For example, glucose has a score of 100 on the G.I. due to how high and fast it causes insulin to spike in the blood stream.

Complex carbs do have lower glycemic index score compared to simple carbs. You might ask, why does this matter to us? It matters because the more often and higher you spike your insulin levels, the more insulin resistant you become. And as previously discussed here (Fruit sugar vs table sugar), becoming insulin resistant means a decreased ability of partitioning nutrients and thus slower muscle gains if you are trying to build muscle, or less muscle retention if you are trying to lose fast.

Also, from a health standpoint, simple carbs’ effect of spiking insulin so high so fast increases the risk of getting diabetes and heart disease. Think of it like a roller coaster with ups and downs. That’s exactly what simple carbs do to your insulin levels; they increase rapidly upon consumption of simple carbs then shortly crash. (sugar crash, anyone?).

On the other hand, complex carbs do not cause such a dramatic spike in blood glucose levels and can help maintain more stable levels of insulin. Thus, the risk of getting diabetes and heart disease decreases significantly and your risk of becoming insulin resistant also decreases. In fact, your insulin sensitivity can improve!

Complex carbs vs Simple carbs

So, what’s the final verdict on this matter? Things are not always black and white, especially when it comes to nutrition science and individual variations. But what everyone can agree on is that the majority of your diet should be composed of complex carbohydrates. Does that mean you shouldn’t have any simple carbs? Absolutely not! This is not even sustainable, recommended or required. Especially with our current modern lifestyles and going out to eat, processed foods and such a high exposure to simple carbs on a daily basis.

So, if most of your diet is made up of complex carbs, you should expect the following:

  • decreased risk of getting diabetes.
  • decreases risk of heart disease.
  • improved insulin sensitivity and thus nutrient partitioning. This is favorable for muscle building and fat loss endeavors.
  • improved health.
  • improved energy levels due to slow digestion of carbs and slower gradual release of glucose into the blood stream.
  • no “sugar” crash.
  • better digestive function.
  • better bowel movements.
  • less nutrient deficiency (I’ll show you why in a second).
  • Improved satiety. The high fiber content of complex carbs will help keep you satiated for longer and thus prevent hunger attacks. Simple carbs will fill you up temporarily, but you will feel hungry shortly after.

While glycemic index is a useful tool for those seeking to improve their and body composition, it does have a couple of limitations. For instance, some foods that are categorized as complex carbs or have a low G.I. score can in fact spike insulin rapidly and as high as simple carbs! In addition, the glycemic index was put together on a basis of eating that specific food individually.

Meaning that a food’s G.I. score was determined by the researchers observing how high and fast insulin levels increased when the study subjects ate that food individually. In real life, who will eat oatmeal or a tablespoon of sugar by itself? 99% of the time, we will consume carbs as part of a meal with some fats and protein, and both can increase or decrease blood glucose levels as well. For instance, eating fat with simple carbs will dramatically slow down and decrease the insulin spike that could’ve been caused by eating that simple carb individually! In essence, it doesn’t really matter that much!

Nutrient density and fiber content

In terms of what really matters when it comes to complex carbs vs simple carbs, nutrient density and fiber content of each must be discussed. The fundamental difference between both types of carbs is that complex carbs are much more nutrient dense and content significantly more amounts of dietary fiber in comparison to “white” or simple carbs.

Complex carbs are in their “raw” state. Meaning that they still have their vitamins, nutrients, minerals and fiber. Simple carbs have been processed and bleached to death through manufacturing processes which results in them having little to no nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber compared to complex carbs.
As previously discussed, dietary fiber is essential to well-functioning digestive system and can improve your bowel movements, manage insulin levels better and thus enhance nutrient partitioning. In addition, supplying your body with essential vitamins, minerals and nutrients will improve your health and help you perform and feel better.

It’s important to note something, though. Simple carbs can help you build muscle faster by helping you get your calories in. Meaning, if your daily caloric requirements are 3000 calories to build muscle, you will probably not be able to eat all of your carb calories from complex sources (just think about eating 1500 calories from brown rice or yams and you will be full before you even attempt to eat that amount), thus simple carbs provide an additional source to help you get your calories in.

Simple carbs are also delicious, easy to eat and are an excellent source of short-term energy. Want an energy short? Eat some simple carbs and go do whatever activity you plan on doing within 30 minutes (do not eat sugar, though). Also, while fiber can help keep you “regular”, consuming “too much” fiber (this rarely happens) can be counterproductive and cause constipation! This may happen because fiber absorbs a lot of water and creates”bulks” which could result in food spending too much time in the digestive tract and make your stools hard to pass. Thus, simple carbs can also help keep your digestive tract clean by being digested much faster than complex fibrous carbs.

Final verdict

Ensure that the majority of your diet consists of complex carbs. Simple carbs can also be a great additional source of getting your calories in and optimizing your short-term energy levels if you are getting ready for an immediate activity.

For instance, if you are feeling tired and want to hit the gym within 30 minutes, simple carbs will do a much better job at boosting your energy levels than complex carbs will. Even better, combine the two for a sustained level of energy throughout your workout! In the grand scheme of things, as long as your diet consists mainly of complex carbs, you can still have your simple carbs and be healthy and perform your best.

The next step in this segment of this chapter would be to calculate your ideal daily carb intake. So:

How much carbs should I eat to build muscle and burn fat?



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