Complex carbohydrates, also called polysaccharides, are organic compounds found in some types of foods. All carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules; when three or more of these molecules are bound together, it is considered complex. Experts believe that complex molecules are healthier than simple ones because it takes the body longer to break them down. This slow digestion releases sugar into the blood system slowly, creating a consistent level of energy.
Many vegetables, beans, split peas, lentils, and whole grains are complex carbohydrates. Some fruits and vegetables can be considered simple carbohydrates; however, it's important to note that, because of their nutrient-rich content, they can still be part of a healthy diet. Some vegetables, like mushrooms, spinach, onions, broccoli, and peppers, are fibrous carbohydrates, a complex type.
Complex carbohydrates differ from simple carbohydrates in that simple carbohydrates digest or break down into sugar quickly. Sugar that flows into the blood stream quickly causes blood sugar levels to rise and drop rapidly. Simple carbohydrates can be found in items like honey, candy, sodas, and fruit juices. Processed foods are the most common source of simple carbohydrates.
Potatoes are considered a starchy carbohydrate, which is another type of complex carbohydrate. All legumes, which include beans, lentils, and split peas, are complex and fall into the starchy category. So do whole wheat or brown pastas, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, barley, and whole grains.
Complex carbohydrates are commonly found raw, dried, or frozen in their whole state. These foods are an important source of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Any food that's been enriched or bleached is processed and is usually no longer complex. Breads that contain this type of carbohydrate should be heavy for their size, contain no enriched wheat or flour, and should have at least 4 grams of fiber per serving.
Enriched, bleached, or processed whole wheat does not count as a complex carbohydrate because, during the processing, all the nutrients have usually been stripped. The flour becomes enriched when those nutrients that are considered important are added back in. What's important to know is that not all the nutrients are put back, and the body doesn't process enriched foods the same way as it does unprocessed foods because of those missing nutrients.
Most experts recommend reducing simple carbohydrates and increasing complex ones for a healthy, even source of energy throughout the day. Many people find these nutrients more filling, so consume fewer calories because they feel less hungry. Often, people who reduce simple carbohydrates find that their cravings for sugary snacks will dissipate over time.