Anyone who has ever been on a diet has probably heard over and over again that they should limit their intake of simple carbohydrates while it is ok to eat a diet rich in foods containing complex carbohydrates. The unfortunate thing is that many of us just don’t know what the difference is and are probably asking ourselves, "Exactly what are complex carbohydrates?" The scientific explanation is that they are complex compounds of three or more sugar molecules also called polysaccharides. However, that doesn’t tell us very much other than they are a bunch of simple sugars bonded together to form a compound. So exactly what are complex carbohydrates in relation to being healthy and where can we find them?
Slow Burn Carbs
Sometimes you will hear complex carbohydrates referred to as ‘slow burn’ carbs. This is because, unlike simple carbs that immediately convert into glucose, complex carbohydrates break down much slower and as a result, release energy to the body in a steady flow. Simple carbohydrates convert instantly to glucose which is dangerous on two levels. First of all, your body can only handle so much sugar at once so you get spikes in the bloodstream. However, those sugar levels also fall just as rapidly as they rise which leads to crash and burn.
Secondly, and probably more importantly in terms of weight control, excess simple carbs are more easily stored by the body as fat cells. From a biological standpoint this would be great because if those fat cells needed to be called upon for energy at some later time they would be available. The problem is that when you eat too much simple sugar and store too many fat cells you will have more than you need and obesity becomes a real threat.
Benefits of Complex Carbohydrates
One of the things you should know about complex carbohydrates is that dietary fiber is comprised of them. If you think about it for a moment you will see that this is beneficial on several levels. Although we are probably asking "What are complex carbohydrates?" because we want to lose weight, there is more to it than that. Not only do they help to prevent too much sugar from being released into the bloodstream but they are heart healthy carbs as well! We are well aware of the fact that diets rich in fiber can help to lower levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol in the bloodstream but there are other benefits to fiber/complex carbs as well.
Diets rich in fiber help to keep us ‘regular’ which also promotes greater intestinal health and, in turn, helps to guard against a number of illnesses including colorectal cancer. Immunity is strengthened because of the close proximity of many lymph glands to the intestinal tract. If food doesn’t move through the intestines quickly and sits there as a breeding ground for all sorts of toxins, our immunity suffers. What are complex carbohydrates? They are a great way to stay healthy, not to mention all the dietary fats they help remove from the body before they can be stored as fat cells!
Foods Rich in Complex Carbohydrates
As you have seen, foods rich in dietary fiber are also rich in complex carbohydrates. This would include most, if not all, whole grains such as oats, bran, brown rice, buckwheat, barley, millet, rye, whole wheat, cracked wheat (bulgur) and believe it or not, popcorn. But whole grains are not the only foods high in complex carbohydrates as there is a list of vegetables that are also a great source of fiber/complex carbs.
Although you might not exactly think of a potato as being a vegetable, it falls within that food group and is a great source of complex carbs. Most of the root veggies such as yams are also rich in fiber. However, so too are certain other vegetables such as spinach, broccoli, mushrooms, onions, lima beans, kidney beans, peas, navy beans and peppers. Many fruits are also rich in complex carbohydrates but unfortunately also contain a good deal of simple sugar as well (fructose) which isn’t always a good thing.
So then, what are complex carbohydrates? While it may not be a complete answer, the best way to think about them is that they are slow burning carbs found in high fiber foods. They benefit your health on several levels among which are sustainable levels of energy, increased digestion and immunity, heart health and their ability to help you maintain a healthy weight. What are complex carbohydrates? In plain English, they are good for you.