Carbohydrates: Complex vs Simple

I pretty much grew up with carbohydrates (or carbs) being the base of my meals – rice with meats and vegetables as sides, noodles with other ingredients as sides, etc. I enjoy my coffee with brown sugar and having coconut pancakes (mee chiang kueh) once in a while. I know I should have my macronutrients (fat, protein, carbohydrate) in the correct proportion but it didn’t occur to me that they can be further branched into the ‘better‘ and ‘bad‘ category. For example, saturated versus trans fat, complex versus simple carbohydrate, etc. So lets just look at carbohydrates.


Simple Carbohydrates

A grain kernel has got 4 main parts: the husk, bran (fiber), germ (fats and vitamins) and endosperm (starch)

Simple carbohydrates are also known as refined carbohydrates. They are made up of single or double sugar molecules and are more easily digested and absorbed by the body.

Sugar like table sugar, fructose corn syrup, agave syrup are considered simple carbs too.

White rice, flours, noodles, chips, keropok are refined carbohydrates while their raw ingredients are not. The process of refining these raw ingredients strips out the beneficial contents like the husks, fiber (i.e. bran), vitamins and fats. As a result, these food are often only left with the starch.

This class of carbohydrates have high glycemic index (GI).


Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are also known as unrefined carbohydrates. They are made up of chains of sugar molecules. Such food usually have higher fiber content. The fiber content slows down the absorption of nutrients taken at the same meal. In the case of complex carbs, it slows down the absorption of glucose, evening out the peaks and valleys in blood sugar level.

Whole grains (i.e. brown rice), beans, sweet potatoes, oatmeal are examples of complex carbs and have lower glycemic index.


Why are refined carbohydrates bad?

Triglycerides are a type of fat circulating in the blood stream

Not only are they stripped of antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals, they spike up blood glucose rapidly as they are easily digested, prompting the body to react by spiking up insulin to normalize the blood glucose level.

Articles on the web suggests that the spiking of insulin trains the body to be resistant to it. That is, greater amount of insulin needs to be produced by the body (to be exact, the pancreas) to lower the same units of blood glucose. When the body can not produce the amount of insulin required and the blood glucose remains above acceptable values, it is termed as type 2 diabetes.

Excess blood glucose can also increase the amount of blood triglycerides. Having large amount of it can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

In a blood test report (with lipid profile panel), you will often see triglycerides and glucose concentration.


Start choosing complex carbohydrates

Brown rice is the whole grain kernel with the outer inedible husk removed

Now, with the knowledge of complex and simple carbohydrates, I am now making informed choices during my meal times by choosing less processed food over the others. Instead of white rice, I either choose brown rice or replace it with more vegetables for their complex carbs, nutrients and vitamins. For drinks, choosing black coffee instead of latte or soft drinks. And if I am taking fruits, the whole fruit instead of blended smoothies or juice.

You might say that food choices are often limited during gatherings. Yes, indeed. So these gatherings are often my cheat days where I will eat slightly less wholesome food and try to choose dishes that are less processed.

Hope this writeup help you understand carbohydrates too!


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