What Are Complex Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are natural compounds made from carbon, hydrogen and oxygen molecules that provide the majority of the energy used by the human body. They come in two forms: simple and complex.


As a whole, carbohydrates are classified by their molecular structure. They are essentially no more than groups of sugar molecules. Simple carbohydrates are made up of one or two sugar molecules. Sucrose, or table sugar, is a simple carbohydrate. Complex carbohydrates are composed of more than two sugar molecules–more than ten molecules in some cases. The starch found in potatoes is a complex carbohydrate.

Good and Bad Carbohydrates

Simple carbohydrates have become known as “bad” carbohydrates, typically because of the nutritionally lacking refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup that is added to processed foods. They are also digested quickly which often leads to the aptly named “sugar rush.” They can, however, also raise blood-glucose levels to dangerous levels, especially for diabetics.

Thanks to their more complicated structure, complex carbohydrates take longer for the body to digest, raising blood sugar levels more slowly and to a lesser degree. They are often referred to as “good” carbohydrates.

Types of Complex Carbohydrates

There are two types of complex carbohydrates. Both, like all carbohydrates, originate from plants. The already mentioned starches are the digestible complex carbohydrates. The less-easily digestible cellulose, the material that gives plant cells their rigid structure, is also a complex carbohydrate. You know it as “fiber,” and it primarily works to smooth the inner workings of the intestinal tract.

Sources of Complex Carbohydrates

The best sources of complex carbohydrates are those that provide both starches and fiber. Whole grains are some of the best sources of both. Many green vegetables (spinach, green beans, broccoli) will provide a lot of fiber but less starch. Therefore, it might be a good idea to pair them with starchy foods like rice, pasta or corn to balance out a meal.


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