Most people simply don’t know the carbohydrate content of what they’re eating, or what it does. Or that depending on what time of day you eat them and what you do after you eat, can impact your fat/muscle losses and gains. To set you on the right path, let's differentiate between complex and simple carbohydrates.
Also called a ‘monosaccharide’, a simple carb is known as such because it has a single or double sugar molecule structure. Without getting too technical, it means the body can digest it quickly to use as energy. There are two types of simple carbs, one is natural. And includes fruit and lactose (from dairy) and is the healthier option for a quick energy burst. The other is refined, which will also give a quick burst of energy but comes from processed or ‘refined’ products. These include chips, lollies, chocolate, pastries and ‘low fat’ products that are sweetened with sugar also fall under this category, as well as soft drinks to name a few.
The main difference between the two (natural vs. refined) is the amount of carbohydrate contained in them, per gram of actual food. When we refer to ‘refined’ carbohydrates, we're talking about packaged foods that contain ingredients which are processed i.e. refined. In other words, made different from their original state. Sugar for example, has been so processed (refined) that it's gone from being a cane in a field, to tiny granules on our tables. Due to this process, our body doesn’t need to work hard to break down the carbohydrates to digest them. It’s already been done for us when the ingredients are processed. All that’s left for us to do is digest the food and use it as energy. This explains why after eating something sugary, we experience a ‘sugar high’ and then crash, not long after.
To visually explain this: one punnet (250g) of strawberries, which is a natural carbohydrate (fructose) contains around 7 grams of carbohydrates. One 53g Mars Bar, a refined carbohydrate contains approximately 38 grams of carbohydrate (most of this being from ‘refined’ ingredients like white sugar). That means, for every one Mars Bar, you could eat over 5 punnets of strawberries!
Complex carbohydrates, also known as ‘polysaccharides’ are also made up of sugar molecules. However, rather than having one or two sugar molecules, a complex carbohydrate has three or more sugar molecules bound together. The easiest way to distinguish complex from simple carbohydrates is to know that complex carbohydrates provide longer lasting energy (commonly referred to as 'low glycaemic index' aka 'low GI'). This is because it takes the body longer to break down (i.e. digest the food) due to its complex molecular structure. This sustained energy release is generally preferred over the quick sugar rushes given by most simple carbohydrates (unless eaten prior to intense activity). More importantly for people watching their weight, complex carbohydrates will help keep you fuller for longer than simple carbohydrates will. It takes our bodies longer to break complex carbohydrates down which means it stays in our systems for longer thus providing a fuller feeling for longer, while also providing us with a sustained release of energy.
So which foods exactly, are complex? There are two categories: starchy carbohydrates and fibrous carbohydrates. Starchy carbohydrates are generally the foods that most people know to be carbohydrates: pasta, rice, bread, oats, white/sweet potato. Less well known are whole grains (quinoa, amaranth, barley, etc) and legumes (beans, lentils, peas, etc). While these may be a valuable source of protein for some, particularly vegetarians/vegans, nutritionally they are more carbohydrate than protein.
The closer to its natural state a complex carbohydrate is, the longer it will take our bodies to break down, therefore the longer it will keep us full for. For example: 2 slices of wholegrain bread will keep you fuller for longer than 2 slices of white bread and; ½ a cup of brown rice will keep you fuller for longer than ½ a cup of white rice. This is because less processing has been done to the food before you eat it, so your body has to work a little harder to break it down and digest it. Not only is this more beneficial in curbing our food consumption, it is also better for us because the more processed a food is, the more likely it is to contain fillers, additives, colourings and/or preservatives.
Fibrous complex carbohydrates are vegetables, simply put. While some vegetables can be considered starchy (particularly white and sweet potatoes), for the most part they are fibrous. Fibrous carbohydrates are one of the best ways to get your body’s requirements of minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals (which have been shown to have cancer fighting properties). Additionally, fibrous carbohydrates help promote regular bowl movement, contain disease fighting properties and have a low carbohydrate content - which means we can eat more of them, more often. Unlike refined carbohydrates which are generally ‘empty calories’, meaning they add to our caloric intake for the day (i.e. our waistline) but deliver next to no vitamins or minerals. Particularly good sources of fibrous complex carbohydrates include all your green veg, mushrooms, onions, green beans, capsicum, cauliflower and most fruit, in moderation.
In saying all of this, there is a time and place for all carbohydrates in our diet, although some more than others. For weight loss, a restricted carbohydrate intake can drastically encourage and enhance results. The only carbohydrate that this need not apply really is fibrous carbohydrates (i.e. vegetables). The opposite is true for those looking to build muscle and fuel workouts. Increasing carbohydrate intake pre and post workout can help with muscle gain and increased energy output. As to which ones to restrict, refined carbohydrates are a no-brainer. As for natural carbohydrates and starchy carbohydrates – it depends on who you ask, almost every other person (professional or not), will have an opinion.
I am a Personal Trainer, not a Dietician, nor a Nutritionist. While I have done my own research and experimented on myself with carbohydrates, protein and fat, I can't tell you what will work for you - that wasn't my intention. If you're asking more questions about food than you had prior to reading this, then I've reached my goal. As a population we need to be more aware of what we are putting in our bodies. If this has given you one piece of new information, or prompted you to make one Google search, then mission accomplished! Diet and nutrition is not a one size fits all, and Instagram inspo will only get you so far. Do some research and start figuring out what works for you because we only have one body and we need to look after it!