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What Are Complex Carbohydrates And Why Do You Need Them?

Carbs can get a bad rap. But not all carbs are created equally.

The definition of a complex carbohydrate is a polysaccharide that consists of hundreds or thousands of monosaccharide units. In other words, complex carbs, as they’re known, are complex in two ways: one, they are complex in the sense it takes your body a little bit longer to work out, and, two, they are carbs that are made up of smaller sugar molecules that are strung together to form a complex chain.

How are complex carbs different to simple carbs?

Simple and complex carbs are used by your body for energy, in one form or another, as they are turned to glucose, which is used in the cells of your body. Any glucose that is not used is stored in your muscles and liver as glycogen for when it is needed.

The main difference is in the size of the molecules, with complex carbs being larger. Complex carbs are the good guys in one respect: they have more nutritional value than simple carbs and take longer for your system to digest. Complex carbs provide your body with vitamins, minerals and fibers, each of which greatly contributes to the good health and maintenance of your inner workings, not least your immune and digestive systems.

Simple carbs are pretty much simple sugars such as honey and table sugar, which are broken down quickly in your body. This is good for anyone in need of a quick hit of energy, but not so much a little later on when your spiked levels have dropped again.

How do complex carbohydrates work?

Complex carbs, being larger molecules, keep your sugar levels steady and leave your feeling ‘full’ for longer as their molecular structure takes longer for your digestive system to break down, leaving you fueled and satiated for longer.

Carbs come in the form of sugars, starch and fibers, all of which your body needs for energy, your metabolism, digestion and your brain function.

Lets’ begin with energy, which carbs instantly provide your body with. For anyone lacking motivation and strength, that’s likely because you have cut important complex carbs from your diet and replaced them with sugar and caffeine. The latter is hard to ignore, but you should have them in moderation alongside a diet balanced by one of the foods from our following list to ensure your blood sugar and energy levels remain constant.

Fiber is a primary aid in bowel regularity and the shape of your digestive system. This is where the grain, legumes and veg from our list come in.

Without energy providing calories your metabolism will take a hit that you didn’t see coming. While you may think that cutting carbs can help you to lose weight, it actually causes your metabolism to slow down, while ensuring a regular intake of complex carbs will keep your metabolism (and therefore weight) optimized.

Complex carbs such as oatmeal help your body to make melatonin, which is a hormone that affects your sleep. While midnight raids of the fridge might see you reaching for sugary snacks, by eating porridge or something containing a healthy dose of oats, you may just find that you sleep the night without needing the junk in the middle of the night.

Complex carbohydrate foods

So which foods provide you with the complex carbs that your healthy brain, nervous system and blood sugar demands? You’ll be pleased to know that complex carbs are not a case of cutting what you eat, rather they are a healthy substitute for the likes of sandwiches made with white bread, unhealthy breakfast cereals, ready meals and sugary snack food that leave you irritable and tired once digested.

The best complex carbs include:

  • Green vegetable
  • Beans, peas and lentils
  • Vegetables full of starch, such as potatoes; better yet go for sweet potatoes, corn and pumpkins that are not filled with preservatives
  • Whole grain foods, including pasta, oatmeal and whole grain bread
  • Multigrain cereals, including barley, oats and rye
  • Brown rice
  • Yams

Take home message

Most of your intake of carbs should be complex carbs, as opposed to simple carbs. There are many myths about carbs being bad for you, your health and athletic performance, but carbs are essential for your wellbeing and energy levels. If there is a battle between good and evil carbs, then complex carbs are the good ones that you should seek out in place of the simple kind.

Simple carbs are quickly digested and provide less nutritional value. These are the kinds of empty carbs you get from processed foods, white bread, takeaways and frozen ready meals along with table sugars and quick boosts that leave you lacking not long after. Complex carbs leave you with lasting resources, minerals and fiber, which benefit your overall health and leave you fuel in your tank (glycogen in your muscles) for when you need it.

Enjoy this article on complex carbohydrates?



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Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.

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Faye Reid

Faye Reid

Writer and expert

Faye Reid has a Master of Science in Sport Physiology and Nutrition. She puts her passion into practice as goal attack for her netball team, and in competitive event riding. Find out more about Faye's experience here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/faye-reid-8b619b122/.

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