What are Simple Carbohydrates?

Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

Simple carbohydrates, often also called “simple carbs,” are a type of nutrient that absorbs very quickly into the blood and provides a source of quick energy. Many different foods fall within this category, and some are healthier than others. All are characterized by their quick absorption, though; whatever energy the body gets, it tends to burn through pretty quickly. Eating some each day is usually fine, but health experts and dieticians often recommend that people take in most of their calories from more complex foods.

Apples have lots of simple carbohydrates.
Apples have lots of simple carbohydrates.

Basic Classification

People typically need to eat a variety of different foods in order to have a healthy and balanced diet. Medical experts usually consider carbohydrates as an essential “macronutrient,” or food that provides the bulk of a person’s daily calories. Fats and proteins are also macronutrients. Depending on a person’s dietary needs, he or she may need more from one category than another, but in most cases all three are required for optimal health.

Candy typically contains simple carbohydrates.
Candy typically contains simple carbohydrates.

This doesn’t mean that all three are created equal, though. Simple carbohydrates are, as their name suggests, relatively basic, at least from a chemical standpoint; they provide quick energy, but they are usually also very high in sugar. They are an important dietary building block and can provide good energy to the body, but it isn’t usually a good idea for people to eat diets heavy in simple carbs. Balancing in more complex nutrients and proteins can help the body metabolize and process food more efficiently, which leads to better health and lower weight in most cases.

Pretzels are an example of simple carbohydrates.
Pretzels are an example of simple carbohydrates.

Common Examples

Simple carbs occur as either single sugars (monosaccharides) like fructose, or double sugars (disaccharides) like lactose or sucrose. Fruits are one of the most common places to find fructose. Lactose comes primarily from milk and other dairy products, while sucrose is what most granulated or refined sugar contains.

White rice is an example of simple carbohydrates.
White rice is an example of simple carbohydrates.

Impact on Blood Sugar and Energy

Mono- and disaccharides have what is called a high glycemic index, which means that they absorb really easily into the bloodstream. This makes them a good source of quick energy, though the rush doesn’t usually last for very long. Drinking a glass of juice or eating a piece of candy can give someone enough of a boost to run a quick sprint, for instance, but runners covering longer distances usually need to eat things that will provide more sustained energy.

Most people find that simple carbs aren’t really satisfying either, at least not in the long run. Foods like bananas that also have a lot of fiber and other minerals are an exception, since these other aspects can slow the digestion process. In general, though, the body processes mono- and disaccharides very quickly. A person who reaches for something sugary may feel full at first, but will often be even hungrier once the sugar has processed out of the blood, a phenomenon many people refer to as a “sugar crash.”

Health Concerns

People with blood sugar issues like diabetes usually need to limit their consumption of high glycemic foods in order to keep their blood chemistry stable. The occasional confection is often fine, but usually only in conjunction with other more nutrient-dense foods.

People hoping to lose weight sometimes also avoid simple carbs. Diets high in sugar often overwhelm the body’s ability to effectively process things and can lead to sugar being stored as fat. People who are less satisfied with their food are also more likely to overeat, which contributes to weight gain over time.

There isn’t usually anything inherently wrong with foods in this category, but they aren’t always the best choice, either. Most medical experts recommend eating a variety of fresh fruits and dairy products, but refined and processed sugars don’t fall within these categories. Even still, experts typically say that so-called “healthy” sugars should be paired with other categories of foods, particularly proteins, in order to have a balanced diet.

Differences from Complex Carbohydrates

People often talk about carbohydrates as a general classification of foods, and may say that they’re on a “low carb” or “no carb” diet. Simple carbohydrates are only a part of this equation, though. So-called “complex” carbs — foods that contain more intricate sugar compounds known as polysaccharides — are also included in the broad “carbohydrate” category.

Whole grains and vegetables are two common examples. The sugars in these foods are harder for the body to break down, and in many cases can also help with vitamin and mineral absorption. They are still considered carbs based on their chemical composition, but they have a low glycemic index and often don’t need to be treated as carefully by dieters and those with blood sugar issues.

Lactose primary comes from milk and other dairy products.
Lactose primary comes from milk and other dairy products.
Malcolm Tatum
Malcolm Tatum

After many years in the teleconferencing industry, Michael decided to embrace his passion for trivia, research, and writing by becoming a full-time freelance writer. Since then, he has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including wiseGEEK, and his work has also appeared in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and several newspapers. Malcolm’s other interests include collecting vinyl records, minor league baseball, and cycling.

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Discussion Comments


Not that I am trying to bask tutrlez, but simply wanted to get facts straight.

Yes, it is true that simple carbohydrates are all exactly that: simple carbohydrates. However, the stratification beyond this is that each simple carbohydrate has a different glycemic index which translates to a different glycemic load. (This basically is the concept of how quickly the sugar is converted from the simple carbohydrate and absorbed into the bloodstream causing a reacting from the pancreas and for how long that sugar level is maintained after consumption.)

This is where anon116063 is correct: HF Corn Syrup has the worst glycemic index possible (Very high in comparison to fruit).

Fruit, on the other hand, does have simple carbohydrates, but where it is different is the fact that it also has fiber. Fruit has a very low Glycemic Index, meaning you stay fuller longer. Plus, compared to soda it offers a multitude of vitamins and minerals.


turtlez sounds like a corporate insider. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) is a simple carb and is the largest source of calories in the USA, mostly due to soft drink consumption.

HFCS has been shown to promote weight gain. Avoid all processed simple carbs! Your body doesn't need them and they are unhealthy. Eat fruit and other real food. If you want to eat for health, only eat real food and try and avoid all chemicals, antibiotics, hormones and GM food, by going organic. Your body and mind will thank you!


In contrast to simple carbohydrates which are commonly found in most fruits, there are also foods that are generally "bad" for you that also contain large amount of simple carbohydrates. This includes (but is not limited to): fudge, table sugar, cakes, and soft drinks. It makes sense and is safe to say that eating too much of the foods that are extremely rich in simple carbohydrates -will- promote weight gain, so choose wisely.


Simple carbohydrates are much easier for the body to break down. As far as simple carbohydrates foods or a list of simple carbohydrates these most often include fruits which was previously mentioned above. Typically, simple carbohydrates do not promote weight gain, but that's not to say that eating a lot of fruit wouldn't encourage the natural sugars to become more complex for your body to break down; moderation is key.

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