Simple carbohydrates, often also called “simple carbs,” are a type of nutrient that absorbs very quickly into the blood and provides a source of quick energy. Many different foods fall within this category, and some are healthier than others. All are characterized by their quick absorption, though; whatever energy the body gets, it tends to burn through pretty quickly. Eating some each day is usually fine, but health experts and dieticians often recommend that people take in most of their calories from more complex foods.
People typically need to eat a variety of different foods in order to have a healthy and balanced diet. Medical experts usually consider carbohydrates as an essential “macronutrient,” or food that provides the bulk of a person’s daily calories. Fats and proteins are also macronutrients. Depending on a person’s dietary needs, he or she may need more from one category than another, but in most cases all three are required for optimal health.
This doesn’t mean that all three are created equal, though. Simple carbohydrates are, as their name suggests, relatively basic, at least from a chemical standpoint; they provide quick energy, but they are usually also very high in sugar. They are an important dietary building block and can provide good energy to the body, but it isn’t usually a good idea for people to eat diets heavy in simple carbs. Balancing in more complex nutrients and proteins can help the body metabolize and process food more efficiently, which leads to better health and lower weight in most cases.
Simple carbs occur as either single sugars (monosaccharides) like fructose, or double sugars (disaccharides) like lactose or sucrose. Fruits are one of the most common places to find fructose. Lactose comes primarily from milk and other dairy products, while sucrose is what most granulated or refined sugar contains.
Impact on Blood Sugar and Energy
Mono- and disaccharides have what is called a high glycemic index, which means that they absorb really easily into the bloodstream. This makes them a good source of quick energy, though the rush doesn’t usually last for very long. Drinking a glass of juice or eating a piece of candy can give someone enough of a boost to run a quick sprint, for instance, but runners covering longer distances usually need to eat things that will provide more sustained energy.
Most people find that simple carbs aren’t really satisfying either, at least not in the long run. Foods like bananas that also have a lot of fiber and other minerals are an exception, since these other aspects can slow the digestion process. In general, though, the body processes mono- and disaccharides very quickly. A person who reaches for something sugary may feel full at first, but will often be even hungrier once the sugar has processed out of the blood, a phenomenon many people refer to as a “sugar crash.”
People with blood sugar issues like diabetes usually need to limit their consumption of high glycemic foods in order to keep their blood chemistry stable. The occasional confection is often fine, but usually only in conjunction with other more nutrient-dense foods.
People hoping to lose weight sometimes also avoid simple carbs. Diets high in sugar often overwhelm the body’s ability to effectively process things and can lead to sugar being stored as fat. People who are less satisfied with their food are also more likely to overeat, which contributes to weight gain over time.
There isn’t usually anything inherently wrong with foods in this category, but they aren’t always the best choice, either. Most medical experts recommend eating a variety of fresh fruits and dairy products, but refined and processed sugars don’t fall within these categories. Even still, experts typically say that so-called “healthy” sugars should be paired with other categories of foods, particularly proteins, in order to have a balanced diet.
Differences from Complex Carbohydrates
People often talk about carbohydrates as a general classification of foods, and may say that they’re on a “low carb” or “no carb” diet. Simple carbohydrates are only a part of this equation, though. So-called “complex” carbs — foods that contain more intricate sugar compounds known as polysaccharides — are also included in the broad “carbohydrate” category.
Whole grains and vegetables are two common examples. The sugars in these foods are harder for the body to break down, and in many cases can also help with vitamin and mineral absorption. They are still considered carbs based on their chemical composition, but they have a low glycemic index and often don’t need to be treated as carefully by dieters and those with blood sugar issues.