Food & Nutrition Science

What Are Complex Carbs? | Talking With Clients about Complex Carbs as a Nutrition Coach

“Complex carbs are always healthier than simple carbs, right?” Imagine if your client asked you this question.

How would you respond as a certified nutritionist?

While you know the answer isn’t a straightforward “yes,” you’ll likely struggle to explain to your client why complex carbs aren’t always synonymous with healthy carbs.

And it isn’t difficult to see why.  

The subject of complex and simple carbs is, well, complex. It’s full of nuances. Whether a carb is complex or simple, its “healthiness” ultimately hinges on several factors, including its overall nutritional composition and degree of processing.

So, how can you word all those nuances in a way your client can easily understand? This article is here to give you a helping hand.

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Simple Carbs vs. Complex Carbs: What’s the Difference?

To fully appreciate the intricacies of simple versus complex carbs, your client must first know what carbs are and what they do in the body.

What Are Carbs?

Along with protein and fat, carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, which are nutrients the human body needs in large quantities.

The primary function of carbohydrates is to provide energy to all cells in the human body.

During digestion, most carbohydrates—not all; we’ll touch on why later—get broken down into single-unit sugars (e.g., glucose, fructose, and galactose), which are absorbed into the bloodstream and transported for use as energy throughout the body.

The Three Types of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates can be split up into three main types based on their chemical structures.

#1: Sugars

 Sugars are also known as simple carbohydrates.

That’s because their chemical structure is simple, being found in the form of monosaccharides (single sugars) or disaccharides (two sugar molecules joined together).

Examples of monosaccharides include glucose, fructose, and galactose, while disaccharides include sucrose, lactose, and maltose. Simple sugars are naturally found in fruits, dairy, and sweeteners like maple syrup and honey.

#2: Starches

Starches are polysaccharides made up of a chain of glucose molecules joined together in covalent bonds.

These large sugar molecules can be found in foods like whole grains, beans, potatoes, and corn.

#3: Fiber

Unlike sugars and starches, dietary fiber—a carbohydrate in plant foods like leafy greens—isn’t broken down for energy usage and storage in cells, tissues, and organs.

That’s because it’s made up of a long chain of sugar molecules bound together in a way that is challenging for the human body to break down and use readily as energy.

Instead, it passes through the body mostly undigested.

But that doesn’t mean dietary fiber is “useless.” There are two types of fiber, and both do a variety of beneficial things for the body.

First up, there’s soluble fiber.

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As its name suggests, soluble fiber can dissolve in water. When consumed, soluble fiber swells up with water in the stomach, partially dissolving to form a thick gel-like substance that slows digestion.

This process helps slow down the rate at which digested carbohydrates enter the bloodstream—preventing spikes in blood glucose levels after eating.

Soluble fiber also has a regulatory effect on the absorption of dietary cholesterol.

Specifically, research shows that it could lower the level of LDL cholesterol (i.e., “bad cholesterol”) in the blood, potentially reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The second type of dietary fiber is insoluble fiber. It does not dissolve in water.

Instead, insoluble fiber passes right through the digestive tract looking pretty much the way it came in. So, what’s the use of that, then? Well, it adds bulk and attracts water into the stool, making it softer and easier to pass.

In other words, it keeps the digestive system healthy.

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