Complex vs Simple Carbs – What’s the Difference?



While carbohydrates are one of the major macronutrients that help a body function, there are many diets that discourage people from consuming carbs.  When they say this, they are most often talking about carbs like plates of pasta or loaves of white bread.

Instead of thinking in terms of carbs being bad for you, period, it’s best to think of them in terms of complex carbs and simple carbs.  That’s how they are classified, and if you can learn the difference, you can better control your own weight loss efforts.

The Truth About Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates shouldn’t be stricken from your diet completely. There are important vitamins and minerals that you’re getting with your carbs that can’t be found in other foods.  They’re full of fiber too, which is good for digestion.  A protein-rich diet can keep you on track as far as weight loss goals, but it can’t give you carbs because it’s almost completely devoid of them.

Carbohydrates are not found only in pasta, breads and white rice, they’re found in other foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and seeds.  Those are some of the good carbs, but the bad ones are sugar-filled foods and sweets, that are processed and full of preservatives.

Carbohydrates consist of three parts, which are starch, fiber, and sugar.  When sugar is the first ingredient, it’s a simple carb that you want to eliminate from your diet.

Simple Carbs

simple carbs

Simple carbs are full of sugars.  They’re mostly made of sugar and the body finds them easy to digest.  Easily digested foods are not ones that will bump up your thermogenesis.  Raw white and brown sugar, corn syrup, glucose, and fruit concentrate are all sugars.  They’re ingredients that are found in many foods you’ll see on your grocery shelves.

Things like pies and other baked treats, soda, packaged cookies, breakfast cereal, and fruit juice are simple carbs full of sugar.  You can tell, because sugar is one of the first ingredients on the packaging.

Complex Carbs

complex carbs

There are more nutrients in complex carbs, and they’re full of fiber.  Fibre causes your body to digest them more slowly.  This has a few advantages.  One of them is that the slow-burning foods will stoke the fires of your body’s thermogenesis.  Another benefit is that you’ll feel full longer, as it takes more time to digest your food.  With simple carbs, you’ll be hungry much sooner, which can lead to overeating.

Complex carbs are found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and beans.  Fiber and starch are two of the ingredients you’ll find in complex carbs.  You can find them in whole wheat breads, whole grain cereals, and brown rice.  Some foods are higher in starch than fiber, and it’s O.K. to consume them occasionally.  They’re still good for you, but the high starch can be a problem.  Those foods are peas, corn, and some cereals.


As you can see, the main difference between simple carbs and complex carbs are the sugars in them. You can almost guarantee that processed foods are simple carbs, and you can check the labels to be sure.  Anything with sucrose, dextrose, fructose, sugar, or syrup in the top ingredients is a simple carb.

Complex carbs are not really processed or packaged.  They’re natural ingredients like fruits and vegetables; kidney beans, broccoli, and apples.  Grains like quinoa, whole wheat pasta, and buckwheat are great, too.

How to Make Good Choices

difference between simple and complex carbs

Instead of choosing candy, you could choose a sweet dried fruit to satisfy your craving.  An even better choice would be a whole fruit like an apple or a banana.

If you normally reach for a soda, choose pure fruit juice as a healthier alternative, but the best choice would be water with added fruit/veggie such as lemon, celery or cucumber for taste.

White bread should be replaced with whole grain breads.  It’s a smarter carb choice.

Enriched pasta (simple) = Cracked wheat pilaf (complex)

White crackers (simple) = Sticks of vegetables like carrots or broccoli (complex)

Sugar-filled cereal (simple) = oatmeal (complex)

You should consider where you’ll replace the simple carbs you might be eating with more complex carbs for weight loss.  It can be incredibly confusing, but if you keep these rules in mind, you should be able to make sound dietary choices.

Rule #1 – simple carbs are normally processed, and some form of sugar will be found within the top 5 ingredients

Rule #2 – complex carbs are unprocessed foods in their natural state like fruits and vegetables.

When it comes down to weight loss, you have to ensure that you’re not missing any key ingredients from your diet.  This includes carbohydrates, which are an essential macronutrient.  This should help you make decisions while shopping at the grocery store.  It can be a confusing topic, but hopefully, we’ve cleared up some of that confusion for you.


About the author: Janis is loves to study topics involving health & wellness, and is obsessed with natural supplements and learning about what goes into them and what they do, or don’t do.  She went to university for nutrition with a minor in economics. Out of the Beach Baby Squad, she is the most likely to stay home. She also does the most of the product reviews on this site.