List of Complex & Simple Carbs & Their Role in Nutrition

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A large bowl of pasta. (Image: Weerawit/iStock/Getty Images)

Your digestive system uses carbohydrates to create the simple sugars, or glucose, that your body uses for fuel. Your body breaks down simple carbohydrates quickly to provide a form of fast energy. Complex carbohydrates take longer to break down, and your body accesses the energy they provide over a longer period of time. Simple and complex carbohydrates differ in the number of calories they contain and in the health benefits they provide. Balancing the carbohydrates in your diet can help you stay energized and healthy.

Simple Carbohydrates – Refined

Refined simple carbohydrates are created when natural ingredients, such as sugar cane, are processed or refined into a product such as table sugar. Refined carbohydrates are added to foods as sweeteners, and include corn syrup, brown sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. Foods that contain high levels of refined sugars include some breakfast cereals, yogurts, cookies and candy.

Refined carbohydrates provide high calorie counts but have little or no nutrient value. In other words, for the number calories consumed, your body receives little benefit. To manage your weight and maximize your nutrition, limit the number of refined carbohydrates in your diet.

Simple Carbohydrates – Natural

Natural sources of simple carbohydrates provide quick energy and boost your health by supplying vitamins and minerals that are not found in refined carbohydrates. Examples of natural simple carbohydrates include fruit, unsweetened fruit juices and the sugar that occurs naturally in dairy products, called lactose.

If you have a choice between a refined and natural carbohydrate as a snack, such as choosing between a candy bar or apple, you can boost your nutrition by choosing the apple. It contains fewer calories than the candy bar and also provides vitamins A and C, folate, calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. In addition to its nutrient value, fruit serves double duty by providing complex carbohydrates in the form of soluble and insoluble fiber.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates have a sugar structure, called starch, that requires your body to work harder to access it. This means that complex carbohydrates release their energy slowly. Foods high in starch content include potatoes, corn, pasta, breads and cereals. While these foods contain vitamins and minerals, starches from whole grains and some fruits and vegetables are more complete because they also contain dietary fiber.

There are two types of dietary fiber. Soluble fiber attracts water and helps slow digestion. Insoluble fiber resists water and acts as bulk in your digestive tract, leaving you feeling fuller over longer periods of time. Both forms of dietary fiber play an important role in nutrition by stabilizing your blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Foods high in dietary fiber include fruit, vegetables, whole grain bread and pasta, seeds, and brown rice. These foods contain many essential vitamins and minerals and can improve certain health conditions. For example, the American Heart Association notes that whole grain foods such as wild rice or whole grain pasta help lower cholesterol levels while providing iron, B vitamins, folic acid and magnesium.

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