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”

  1. I am curious about Quinoa. Is that considered a good complex carb? I am trying VERY hard to make sure we are not eating unhealthy foods and am finding it difficult to find variety for a meal. I think I may have it TOO ingrained in my head that you have to have a protein and carb and a veggie for a meal to be complete.

    Any advice is welcome! Thank you!

    • Quinoa is a whole grain, with all it’s nutrients intact. If you’re looking for healthy food, I think it would be a great addition to your diet. Any whole grain should be fine.

  2. Vicki, instead of spending money on a program myfitnesspal.com does pretty much all of that for free. You can keep a food and exercise log and it tells you the calorie count/carbs/fats/proteins count, etc. of your foods…I just recently started using it, it’s pretty great. I’m sure there are other websites that will do similar things for free as well.


    • Ellen, this is the kind of question you need to ask your doctor. He or she should have a diet recommendation for you. If not, ask for a referral to a nutritionist.

  4. Whst is a good cookbook to use to start eating healthier?
    Is there a way to wean yourself from sugar and processed foods without going to the nuthouse? I want to eat healthier, but really don’t know where and how to start. Any suggestions? How can you lower your tryglicerides, my levels are high.

  5. I’ve been having some major problems with bacteria in my small intestine. I started going to a new GI recently and he recommended a simple carb diet and to eliminate all complex carbs. I said I would consider it, but honestly I’m concerned about the effects it will have on my weight. I’ve started to exercise more and have been steadily adding more complex carbs to my diet and completely removed anything with sugar added. I’m nearly down to the target weight my regular doc and I set. I’m sorta at a loss for what to do. I also can’t use antibiotics because I’m allergic to most, and a while ago I did find one I could handle but along with the bad it killed off the good bacteria and I had to start a L. acidophilus treatment. Right now though I’ve restricted myself to fish, green vegetables, and an apple a day(:couldn’t live without them) until I figure out a plan. Do you think there is some sort of compromise between the two? My GI said to completely cut out complex carbs. I have no idea what to do. If I do do the diet do you think there’s a way to keep from putting on more weight, besides exercising like a dog- I do that already;) are all of the simple carbs bad or are there some that are at least ok or leaning towards good?

    • Hi Tata. I’ve never heard of a diet that leaves out all complex carbs, but your doctor might think you have sensitivities to grains or other common foods, and this might be causing your GI problems. The best person to ask about specific foods to eat is the doctor who put you on this diet – just saying “don’t eat complex carbs” is really not enough to go on.

      I definitely suggest that you call the office and ask for a recommendation for a diet that will work for you. There may be a book the doc suggests, or maybe he has a printed copy of a diet he thinks would be good for you. Just a few weeks of menus should get you on the right track.

      Good luck – I hope you find the answers soon.

    • I have been having stomach and intestinal problems for about four months (I’ve lost almost 50 lbs.). I have been to several doctors, and am now in the care of a gastroenterologist at Duke University Hospital. However, we have not been able to find a diagnosis. The doctor’s latest idea is that I am having “dumping syndrome” (I had gastric bypass surgery nine years ago), and has suggested I eat only complex carbs. In reading these postings, I have seen several references to intestinal bacteria problems that are helped by simple carbs. Can anyone give me a general list of symptoms for this?

  6. Hi Jonni,

    I just wanted to share my story with you. I was 320 pounds in Nov. 2008. It took me 14 months to loose 150 pounds. In January 2010 weighing in at 170 pounds I have reached my goal. No surgeries or diet pills. I exercise 4 times a week and eat whole grians, fruit, vegetables, lean meats, fish and chicken. I have maintained my weight now for 1 year and I feel great. I am 51 years old and in the best shape of my life. I have been overweight most of my adult life, so I know how tough it can be to loose weight and keep it off. It is a life-style change. I have a video on you-tube check it out laura cupp inspirational video. I hope this will inspire all how need support. Thank You Laura Cupp

    • Hi Brandy. I know some people say that reduced salt diets help you lose weight because it improves the mineral balance inside each cell, which also improves the cells’ ability to burn calories. But I’m not an expert in this subject. Most of us eat too much salt anyway, so the easy way to find out is to try it.

  7. Jonni, What a pleasure to come across your site. I couldn’t agree more with your statement “The closer you get to nature, the closer you get to health”.
    As an RN, I would like to commend your recommendations to those who have asked questions based on their medical conditions, as well as to Carley. Everyone’s condition and circumstances are unique and your advice is absolutely the right advice! Keep up the good work and the site 🙂

  8. Sharon, your reply of December 23,2010 at 5:59 PM was valuable, but it would help to have names of the two books and their authors that address Hypoglycemia.

    Thanks for the great website.

  9. Thanks for the lists clarifying the difference between complex and simple carbs! It was such a huge help for me. Made me realize the small bit I needed to tweak my diet to get that extra healthy kick!

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