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Simple vs Complex Carbohydrates

simple carbs

Simple vs complex carbohydrates – Carbohydrates come in various shapes and sizes, and many of us have also heard of the old carbohydrate lies in the past too! To keep it short and sweet let’s clear up some of the confusion around carbohydrates, and teach you when to use them and why for best results!

Simple Carbohydrates Explained

Simple carbohydrates are essentially just that, simple. They are singular molecule forms of carbohydrates. This means that they break down easily when we consume them, there isn’t a need for them to go through an extensive breakdown in the digestion to separate and form glucose for energy.

There are 2 forms of simple sugars – Monosaccharides and Disaccharides. Saccharide means ‘Sugar’. Mono means one and Di means two. These forms are very quickly broken down through digestion and absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose. From here, glucose is used as an effective energy source to support our activity levels. Because this form of carbohydrates is very quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, the elevation of glucose signals to the pancreas to secrete the hormone we know as Insulin. From here, insulin moves the glucose like a parcel delivery into the cells where it can be effectively used for energy.

Complex Carbohydrates Broken Down

Complex carbohydrates contain multiple sugar molecules bound together; longer complex chains are an easy way to picture it. To break these complex longer chains down into the required result – glucose takes a longer period. For this reason, people will usually opt for complex carbohydrate forms to both stays fuller for longer and to keep blood sugar levels steadier over time.

Throughout the day of food intake, most will usually get in a good combination of both sources. Because the complex forms of carbohydrates take a longer time to break down, some can experience bloating and fermentation with heavier more complex forms. If you find this occurring, it may be a good idea to look at your food combinations with carbohydrates and add some more simple forms to help with digestion.

Using Carbohydrates for Training?

There is a place and time for playing with simple and complex carbohydrates and that is around your training regime. If you are looking to improve performance and aren’t as focused on being in a deficit in your sessions, a great way to fuel your body is with simple carbohydrates before and evening during training. Ever see your heavy weight lifters munching down on a bag of lolly snakes before their sessions? They are reaching for quick access to blood sugar and energy output to support the demand for their training.

Marathon runners will also usually have a blend of simple carbohydrates, electrolytes and amino acids just before an event to help fuel their quick demand on energy, and utilise some complex carbohydrates a few hours beforehand or the evening before to ensure they have replenished their glycogen stores. Glycogen is the stored form of glucose in the liver and muscles as energy reserves to fuel energy demand requirements when quickly available glucose from food recently ingested isn’t available.

Carbohydrates can Spare Your Muscle

Carbohydrates can also provide what is known as a ‘muscle sparring’ effect. This is when the body seeks and uses stored glycogen in the muscles and the liver instead of breaking down muscle tissue to make glucose. At times when the body requires energy, it will prioritise a hierarchy of energy access points. It is a very lengthy process to convert muscle proteins down into glucose so it will generally make this its last priority, but it doesn’t mean that muscle wastage is off the cards if it means survival.

The body will usually use what is available in the bloodstream first and shuttle that through with insulin, and then it will reach for muscle and liver glycogen stores. Once here, depending on glycogen reserves you are looking at around 60-90 mins of aerobic exercise to burn through that before it reaches for available fat as a rich energy source. Wanting to spare muscle breakdown is a priority for most people, so keep your protein levels up to help buffer this, especially if you are in a deficit and attempting to burn fat.

Are Carbohydrates Evil?

Across the internet, we have seen and witnessed all kinds of myths and legends about foods, herbs and especially sugars and carbohydrates in particular. “Sugar is bad” “Carbohydrates age us”, “Don’t have carbohydrates after 7 pm!”

Carbohydrates and sugars have been demonised for a very long time. A great way to look at carbohydrates is through energy exchange; if you are putting too much energy in than what you would put out in that day, in other words, consuming in a surplus, it may be troublesome. However, this is not exclusive to carbohydrates alone, this can also include other forms of macronutrients like fats and protein too.

Your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose no matter where this comes from, simple or complex, from fruit or cereal… it gets broken down into glucose. The catch here is the nutrient parcel that is contained with that source of carbohydrates you are consuming. If you are only consuming delicious simple carbohydrate and nutrient-void foods, well this is where deficiencies can occur and have a cascading effect on our health, stress and inflammation status. Consuming nutrient-dense options that come with carbohydrates is important. High fibre complex carbs in our diet can be packed with vitamins and minerals our body needs, along with amino acids to help with recovery.

If you are only eating simple empty carbs, well you’re voiding yourself of other nutrients required to run your machine at a level of optimal performance. Yes, you can enjoy some lolly snakes before training if you like, but also make sure you’re getting in good forms of fibrous fruit and veg throughout the day that is packed with the vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients your body needs for recovery, damage repair, antioxidants and enzymatic processes too. So much happens without a thought, but we need to keep in mind what we feed it to be this way.

References:

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  5. Bradley WJ, Morehen JC, Haigh J, Clarke J, Donovan TF, Twist C, Cotton C, Shepherd S, Cocks M, Sharma A, Impey SG, Cooper RG, Maclaren DP, Morton JP, Close GL. Muscle glycogen utilisation during Rugby match play: Effects of pre-game carbohydrate. J Sci Med Sport. 2016 Dec;19(12):1033-1038. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2016.03.008. Epub 2016 Apr 22. PMID: 27134132.
  6. Mata, F., Valenzuela, P. L., Gimenez, J., Tur, C., Ferreria, D., Domínguez, R., Sanchez-Oliver, A. J., & Martínez Sanz, J. M. (2019). Carbohydrate Availability and Physical Performance: Physiological Overview and Practical Recommendations. Nutrients11(5), 1084. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11051084