Examples of Simple and Complex Carbohydrates

Many health experts recommend cutting down or eliminating sugar and other simple carbohydrates, and increasing the servings of complex carbohydrates in the diet.

Carbohydrates are necessary to your health, because every cell in your body uses them for energy. In fact, your brain can only use carbohydrates for energy.

Unfortunately, over-consumption of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup and other highly refined carbohydrates has been associated with a higher incidence of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even breast cancer. And eating refined carbs can, over time, result in almost uncontrollable sugar cravings.

According to the World Health Organization, sugars and other simple carbohydrates are a leading factor in the worldwide obesity epidemic.

With the popularity of low-carb diets, many people are afraid to eat any carbohydrates, but it is important to distinguish between the health-robbing effects of simple sugars and other carbs, and the health-giving properties of complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates are high-fiber foods, which improve your digestion. They help stabilize the blood sugar, keep your energy at an even level, and help you feel satisfied longer after your meal.

In contrast, sugar and other simple carbohydrates can alter your mood, lead to cravings and compulsive eating, cause wide swings in your blood-sugar levels, and cause weight gain in most people. In addition, a high consumption of sugar can lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when you finally decide to improve your diet and forgo the sweets.

Examples: simple and complex carbohydrates

Some examples of healthy foods containing complex carbohydrates:

Spinach Whole Barley Grapefruit
Turnip Greens Buckwheat Apples
Lettuce Buckwheat bread Prunes
Water Cress Oat bran bread Apricots, Dried
Zucchini Oatmeal Pears
Asparagus Oat bran cereal Plums
Artichokes Museli Strawberries
Okra Wild rice Oranges
Cabbage Brown rice Yams
Celery Multi-grain bread Carrots
Cucumbers Pinto beans Potatoes
Dill Pickles Yogurt, low fat Soybeans
Radishes Skim milk Lentils
Broccoli Navy beans Garbanzo beans
Brussels Sprouts Cauliflower Kidney beans
Eggplant Soy milk Lentils
Onions Whole meal spelt bread Split peas

Some examples of foods containing simple carbohydrates:

Simple carbohydrates are more refined, are usually found in foods with fewer nutrients, and tend to be less satisfying and more fattening.

Table sugar
Corn syrup
Fruit juice
Bread made with white flour
Pasta made with white flour
Soda pop, such as Coke®, Pepsi®, Mountain Dew®, etc.
All baked goods made with white flour
Most packaged cereals

If you are trying to eliminate simple sugars and carbohydrates from your diet, but you don’t want to refer to a list all the time, here are some suggestions:

Read the labels. If the label lists sugar, sucrose, fructose, corn syrup, white or “wheat” flour, they contain simple carbohydrates. If these ingredients are at the top of the list, they may contain mostly simple carbohydrates, and little else. They should be avoided.

Look for foods that have not been highly processed or refined. Choose a piece of fruit instead of fruit juice, which is very high in naturally occurring simple sugars. Choose whole grain breads instead of white bread. Choose whole grain oatmeal instead of packaged cold cereals.

The closer you get to nature, the closer you get to health.

Simple carbohydrates, like sugar and corn syrup, are created in a factory – while complex carbohydrates in vegetables and whole grains are designed by nature, and help you maintain your health.


99 thoughts on “Examples of Simple and Complex Carbohydrates”

    • I’m not quite sure what you’re asking. Do you need a description of the molecular structure of different types of carbohydrates, or the different way that carbohydrates affect blood sugar, (glycemic index)? Perhaps this, from Wikipedia, might help:


      For dietary purposes, carbohydrates can be classified as simple (monosaccharides and disaccharides) or complex (oligosaccharides and polysaccharides). The term complex carbohydrate was first used in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs publication Dietary Goals for the United States (1977), where it denoted “fruit, vegetables and whole-grains”.[14] Dietary guidelines generally recommend that complex carbohydrates, and such nutrient-rich simple carbohydrate sources such as fruit (glucose or fructose) and dairy products (lactose) make up the bulk of carbohydrate consumption. This excludes such sources of simple sugars as candy and sugary drinks.

      The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 dispensed with the simple/complex distinction, instead recommending fiber-rich foods and whole grains.[15]

      The glycemic index and glycemic load concepts have been developed to characterize food behavior during human digestion. They rank carbohydrate-rich foods based on the rapidity of their effect on blood glucose levels. The insulin index is a similar, more recent classification method that ranks foods based on their effects on blood insulin levels, which are caused by glucose (or starch) and some amino acids in food. Glycemic index is a measure of how quickly food glucose is absorbed, while glycemic load is a measure of the total absorbable glucose in foods.

      If you’re doing research for school, that page might be a good place to start.

    • normal cane sugar is high GI which affects mood swings, blood sugar levels etc.

      an alternative that is natural and low GI (therefore the body takes longer to process it and it doesn’t muck with your metabolism) is something like Stevia (which is available under the brand Natvia) or else Agave nectar. usually these are available in your health food aisle at the supermarket.

      basically the more processing involved in getting the end product to your table the more likely that it is a simple sugar and therefore not so good for you.

  1. i mostly eat beans, brown rice, fish, red meat, milk, lots of fruit and vegetables…. i will only eat fast food maybe once every 4 months IF and only IF im super hungry coming back late at night after a party,,,thats a big nono but i only do this couple times a year…i run and bike 5 times a week, im in great shape because of the foods i eat, i just wish people can grab life by the horns and eat the right foods 🙁

    • A lot of times when you are super hungry like you said. Try drinking some water. A lot of people mistake stomach pains for hunger when they need water. You probably need food to, but drinking water will help with the hunger allowing you to hold off on fast food. Find this information on some guys website, I don’t remember which one, but it works really good for me. Especially in the mornings when I wake up.

    • I think fast food once every 4 months is fine because you are practicing the “once in a blue moon” principle. Enjoy that occasional treat; you earned it!

      • Darlene,
        I use to think that too. In fact, when I was employed in the work force it was easy for me to justify doing exactly as you suggested. But since, I am taking care of my 91 year old dad and have been for over 12 years…we don’t even venture near the fast food places. They hold no desire. I cook most our meals at home. Due to dad’s health condition we haven’t visited a restaurant in 2 years. I did have brunch recently with a good friend, first outing in over 12 years…felt wonderful, but I watched what I ordered. Some times situations keep us from doing things we feel we could never give up….like fast food. I don’t even miss these places for a meal.

  2. White flour acts almost like a poison to our bodies. Our bodies were not created for candy, cakes and other simple carbohydrates. I avoid white flour and I ingest minimal amounts of sugar throughout my diet. This has made a great difference in my blood sugar, appetite and my energy level. I used to struggle with low blood sugar every morning (I used to eat white rice for breakfast, along with a cup of tea). Now, I eat oatmeal and tablespoon of organic peanut butter. I lost a lot of unhealthy abdominal fat. I also workout 8-10 hours a week at the gym and ride my bike around 50 miles a week. I feel like I have a different body. What a blessing!

    My body feel so much stronger and I do not get tired near as easily. Avoid the poison! Change your diet!

    • I have just started to cut out refined carbohydrates as part of a healthy eating plan (prompted by being diagnosed with an underactive thyroid). By cutting out simple carbs and sugar, and combining good quality fats, protein and complex carbs at every meal and snack I have more energy than I have had for 10+ years. This is just after 5 days of eating like this. I can’t believe the difference. I have cut out caffeine too. Amazing.

  3. Hey i was wondering if you had anything for an eleven year old?I’m eleven,and i weigh one hundred and forty four pounds. Is that over weight ?Well thanks for the help maybe i can hear something from you later.

    • I’m not quite sure what you’re asking – but I am pretty sure you should be asking a doctor, and not a stranger on a website. What I can say is that if you drink any sodas at all, either regular of “diet,” you should stop. That’s where most of us get the empty calories. One diabetic expert calls soda pop “liquid candy,” and it’s been blamed for much of the childhood obesity that’s become so epidemic in industrialized countries.

      I wish you all the best.

      • Not sure what she’s asking? Did you read it? You answer could have been more tactful and kinder, especially when an overweight 11-year-old is reaching out for help; maybe she doesn’t see a doctor regularly because her family can’t afford it. At least she knows she needs to do something, and she unfortunately turned to a source who — 1) apparently can’t read very well; and 2) couldn’t be bothered to write more than a rather snotty answer.

        • Julie, I’m sorry you felt so offended by my answer, but I stand by it. It is not possible for me — or anyone else on the Internet — to know if Carley needs to be on a diet since we don’t know how tall she is or how active she might be. And I really don’t think children should get dieting advice from total strangers – if her family can’t afford a doctor, perhaps she and her mom can read a good book on children’s nutrition.

          And, since soda pop is one of the biggest sources of excess calories for people in this country, suggesting that she give it up is solid advice for anyone, regardless of her age. I wasn’t trying to be snotty – I was trying to be honest.

          I can’t help but notice that you didn’t volunteer any advice for her, either – so we may not disagree as much as you think we do.

          • Okay! you two.

            Why not give this young person “information” not advice.

            As example might be: Did you know there was a Soda that has No sugar, caffeine or any of the ingredients that cause obesity. In fact there are several
            of them. . .I drink Diet-Rite . . .and love it.

          • Unfortunately, sugar substitutes have their own health problems, and I’m not sure they’ve been thoroughly tested for safety with younger kids. But, on the plus side, there’s a lot of really good books on nutrition and diet, by people who have far more professional knowledge than I do, so I’m sure she’ll find the info she needs. If nothing else, she could have a nice talk with her school nurse.

          • Hi Jonni, nice site here! I have recently decided to change my eating habits. I got a few tips from another blogger about his ideas for weight loss.

            I work overnight as a security guard, and it’s so hard to eat properly, especially when I eat dinner after I wake up, a few hours before I go to work, and then I eat while at work too. I am 6ft 250# and I recently started working out to help with the weight loss.

            Anyways, I started buying salad mixes and similar, and I was wondering what else I could make? (I get sick of salads real quick) I like to eat turkey wraps, so should I go to corn tortillas instead of flour, or is there a better alternative? I am assuming the turkey is fine to eat, since it’s a lean meat… What other suggestions do you have? What do you usually eat for lunches and dinners that you prepare yourself? I also started taking Chromium Picolinate 1000mcg and Niacin 500mg (both once a day) to help with weight loss.

            Thanks in advance!

          • Hi Robert. I’m not a nutritionist so I can’t make specific recommendations for anyone, but I personally follow the guidelines in Sally Fallon’s book Nourishing Traditions. It fits the way I like to eat, because I hate worrying about fat (she says the right kinds of fat, like butter, are good for you) and I can’t stand keeping track of calories. So, basically, I eat anything I want as long as it’s not made in a factory and as long as it doesn’t have sugar or corn syrup in it. Although white flour is made in a factory, I do sometimes cheat and throw some in the bowl when I’m making whole grain bread, just to get a better rise. I actually avoid “fat-free” products, because the 30-year long low-fat experiment has failed so miserably. But that’s just me – you’ll need to find your own way of eating that helps you stay healthy while satisfying your taste-buds.

          • Thanks for the Reply Jonni. I can’t stand to keep track of calories either, but I am slowly trying to cut my sugar intake at least in half, so I have been trying to keep track of that. I have learned a few things from watching Sugar: The Bitter truth, and I will definitely look into the book you recommend. I also hate corn syrup/HFCS, yet it’s very hard to find anything to eat or drink that does not contain HFCS, and I really try to stay away from diet drinks containing aspartame (which would be 99% of them.) I am just finding it quite difficult to do a 180 and change my eating habits altogether, but as I read through other peoples responses, I am seeing it might take a week or two to get used to it. Thanks for the website, it’s a great learning experience!

          • Robert – You might want to try reading Ultrametabolism. It’s a great book by Dr. Hyman. For years he was the doctor and nutritional expert at Canyon Ranch (a healthy resort/spa in Massachusetts). Reading the book really helps understand why some things are bad for you, and exactly what their effects are. His information is very similar to what Jonni is saying about simple vs. complex carbs. Even if you don’t subscribe to what he says and suggests 100%, you can still get a lot out of it. And even though I’m not a health care professional, I have to say — drink water. Nothing else if you can help it. I know its not as exciting as soda, energy drinks, juice, etc. But those things are truly empty calories…you might as well have a candy bar. I gave up drinking anything but water (and one cup of coffee a day) years ago, and it hasn’t been nearly as hard as I thought it would be!

          • Thanks Julie, I will definitely look into the book. I have to say, I tried cutting out soda, and for me, it’s been really hard, but I have cut back considerably. It really is addicting, probably like smoking I would assume (I’m a non smoker so I wouldn’t know) but like you said, sodas really are just empty calories!

          • Jonni, don’t worry about Julie, I have given up blogging because Icouldn’t stand people like that any more. I found your article informative and easy to read so keep at it.

    • Hi Carley,

      140 lbs for an 11 year old is a little to much only if your height is 5’11”. But don’t worry you can change that. Just do not eat junk food and don’t drink pop, and try not to drink juice because it has a lot of sugar. Try to be active and enjoy your life.

    • Yes, whole wheat bread is definitely better than bread made from white flour. The list above includes examples of complex carbohydrates, but it doesn’t include all of them. Check ingredients on the package, though. Some “wheat” bread is made from white flour, with coloring added to make it darker. Whole wheat is what you’re looking for.

    • Actually what you are looking for is Whole grain. Meaning at least 2 grams of fiber per 100 calories. Check label. Many say they are but the first ingredient is only enriched wheat flour not Whole Grain Wheat flour. Just remember to read the nutritional label and after awhile you will learn the difference

    • Any wheat product is bad for the body… wheat is not processed the way it was back 200 or so years ago. The outer shell of the wheat kernal is VERY bad for us and that is not removed in the current processing of wheat. It attracts alot of the nutrients we need and doesn’t let them absorb into the body. Cut out all wheat, sugar, and industrialized oils (anything that is “man made”) and you will really be alot healthier. Eat lots of meat, veggies, fruits. Check out fit4godonline.com and look at the life transformation classes for info to back all of this info I have given. Good Luck and I hope this helps, I’ts done wonders for me!!!!

  4. I think you should at least say that simple sugars do help you because 1 hour before every swim meet i have i have a small amount of white pasta to reinvigorate myself i ussualy do 100 or 200 yd races so i dont do a lot of endurance

  5. ive recently lost alot of weight but im finding it really hard to shift the excess weight on my stomach, ive started to cut out all white pastas and rice and replace them for brown. do you think this will help to lose the extra weight?
    i normally have oats and berries every day in the morning and i dont really eat alot of bread but when i do its always wholemeal. im also very active i normally work out 3-4 times a week. im feeling very healthy at the moment just struggling with that last litle bit!

    • Hi Kelly,
      a bit of a delayed response so hopefully you have shifted that extra weight. If not I would ask, how is your sleep?
      A lack of sleep (or increased stress levels) can lead to increased cortisol levels. This leads to retained abdominal fat and dieting/eating won’t change that.
      Its your bodies defence system just looking out for you.
      Get plenty rest, relax and enjoy the weight loss you’ve had, Drink plenty water and you’ll find that last bit of mid-riff will soon dissapear.

  6. In some gastrointestinal disorders, such as bacterial overgrowth, simple carbs are required. This is because complex carbs are food to the bacteria, simple carbs are not. It is possible then to “starve” the bacteria with simple carbs, which the bacteria cannot utilize. True, antibiotics are usually the front line defense, but if “natural” is the objective, removing complex carbs may be the only answer.

    This seems contrary to most nutritional advice, but may be the only natural solution to gas, bloating, and abdominal pain. Of course if these are present a doctor should be consulted, but GI problems are sometimes hard to diagnose, and an “eating healthy” diet may be the absolute wrong diet for some.

    As someone with undiagnosed GI problems, it has been extremely difficult for me to find a “right” diet. Gluten and lactose free foods seems to help, but not always.

    I have had to return so many foods to the store, or had to throw them out because of GI problems. I think every person is different, and until science finds a method of determining what a particular person should eat, discovering and maintaining a proper diet may prove very difficult if not impossible.

    • Research Blood type Diets. Author Is Peter D’Adamo. Find out your bloodtype and read, with an open mind, the vast info he provides. I am not a ‘die-hard’ for any diet,but I just read and made adjustments to my eating habits and dropped some foods. I found that any ailments or health issues I had started to resolve rather quickly. I have now been free of many things like GI trouble, fatigue, nausea, respiratory distress for 3 Years.!
      It’s definitely worth checking out.

    • Hi Offred…. I know where you’re coming from. I also suffer from GI disorder and absolutely agree with you. I try to eat as healthy as I can, but when I have a flare-up I depend on simple carbs. What everyone see’s as healthy is very un-healthy for my disease.

  7. I just want to thank you for the list of simple and complex carbs. I have just been diagnosed with hypoglycemia. Unfortunately my Dr. hasn’t been that helpful Ladies at a drug store (they have diabetes) have been helpful but of course they aren’t Dr’s. I keep reading books and finally found two books addressing Hypoglycemia. I’m finding your list very helpful and I appreciate this website.

  8. I recently purchased a software program that allows me to enter everything I eat and the exercises I do and the program tells me where I am at as far as daily nutrition goals. I was very surprised to see how much sugar I was eating! I am only allowed 40 grams – I was over that with breakfast alone in eating a banana, oatmeal & blueberries with a little juice! I have cut down on my sugar (from fruits/foods – I do not drink sodas or refined sugar). I read on the Internet that natural sugars (in fruits and foods) do not go towards the 40 grams. Is this true?

    • I think the answer would depend on which program you’re on. I think Weight Watchers recently put all fruits and veggies in the OK to eat category, but I haven’t studied their new point system enough to know for sure.

    • Jody,
      I have neve ever counted calories, points, carbs, etc. I have never been on Weight Watchers, Jenny Craigs, The Atkins Diet, The South Beach Diet,etc. I do eat basically good, low sodium diet, not much red meat, lots of water (no sports drinks) and lots of fruits and vegetables, chicken and fish. I do have a very soft spot for ice cream! I am beginning to train for my first KY Derby Mini-marathon. And I am very interested in the software program that tracks your eating, exercising, and your daily nutrition goals. Can you please give me the name of the program and where you purchased it? I would be very interested in trying this out. Thank you very much for your help. Sincerely, Vicki

      • You don’t need to purchase anything. myfitnesspal.com will do the exact same thing for you. Track fitness and exercise goals, food, weight loss, etc…good luck! 🙂

        • Like Becky said, you don’t need to purchase anything. I have used sparkpeople.com, and have recently found livestrong.com, which is AWESOME, and has great articles and LOTS of helpful information for a healthier lifestyle. Check it out!

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