• Carbohydrate Chemistry – Unravelling the Simple from the Complex

The human body needs carbohydrates on a daily basis for proper bodily functioning. When you eat foods containing carbohydrates, they are converted by the body into glycogen for immediate use as energy, or stored away for later use. Healthy carbohydrates are macronutrients that contain vitamins, minerals and trace elements essential for growth and good health.

There are two types of carbohydrate, simple and complex, and this is determined by the chemical structure and how quickly they are absorbed.

What are simple carbohydrates?

Simple carbohydrates are chemically composed of one or two sugar molecules and are classified as monosaccharides or disaccharides. Most people would recognise simple sugars contained in food as sucrose, glucose and lactose.

You only have to glance at the ingredient lists on food packaging labels for most processed foods to spot these simple sugars. Food manufacturers add sucrose, glucose and lactose to their products to help them appeal to our natural sweet tooth and make the food taste more palatable, as well as help to extend the shelf-life of the product.

The most obvious foods containing simple carbohydrates are those confections we all know to avoid – cakes, boiled sweets, mints, fudge, and fizzy drinks. Consuming these will not only spike your blood sugar levels, but will cause the rapid release of insulin to bring down the levels, resulting in the excess sugar being converted to fat and stored away for later use. This turns into a vicious cycle as more simple carbohydrates are consumed when blood sugar levels dip, insulin is released, and the same thing keeps happening over again.

Simple carbohydrates are also found in more natural foods such as milk and milk products, some vegetables and fresh fruit. These are much better sources of simple carbohydrates because they contain a natural balance of vitamins, minerals and fibre. Milk especially should be favoured over fruit juice for example because it is a good source of calcium for strong bones and teeth, and doesn’t have the concentrated sugar found in most fruit juices.

Sources of simple carbohydrates

Fresh fruit is one of the best natural sources of simple carbohydrate. Apples, pears, oranges, berries, kiwi fruit, peaches and nectarines etc. will all give your body a refreshing lift without overloading it with concentrated sugar, or adding too many calories.

If you are trying to lose weight or are following a strict training programme where you do not want to gain too much weight, then choose a piece of fresh fruit over a highly processed food bar or energy drink. The natural fructose found in fruit can deliver fibre, vitamins and minerals and antioxidants as well as an energy boost.

Other sources of simple carbohydrates you probably eat every day without realising are table sugar (the white stuff you stir into your tea and coffee), and other types of sugar – brown, maple syrup, honey, jam, treacle and golden syrup.

You can make the decision to rummage through your kitchen cupboards and remove these sources of simple sugar carbohydrates from your life, but don’t forget that these sugars are hidden in a lot of everyday foods – even ones you may consider healthy, such as whole oat flapjacks, oatmeal and raisin cookies, and even baked beans (there is a lot of sugar in the tomato sauce).

When to use simple carbohydrates

It is never wise to exercise on a full stomach, as this can cause discomfort or nausea during training, and even indigestion that can hamper your training efforts and post workout recovery. If you are heading to the gym or exercise class on an empty stomach, or it has been a while since your last meal, then you can do no better than to eat a banana or another piece of fresh fruit shortly before your workout.

Eating a little simple carbohydrate just before you exercise can supply your body with some instant energy to help you get through your workout, and prevent you feeling sluggish from lack of food.

When you are feeling weary, run-down, or physically exhausted after an intense workout, a dose of simple carbohydrate may perk you up for a short while. A good source of simple carbohydrates post workout would be a banana, or if you have access to a kitchen, a bowl of oat porridge with sliced banana and a spoon of honey will give you an instant boost, but will also deliver a healthy dose of essential nutrients. The complex carbohydrates in the oat porridge will also help to sustain your blood sugar levels and avoid the inevitable crash from the simple carbohydrates found in the honey and banana.

Taking in simple carbohydrates post workout will spike your blood sugar level, but it will also give you an insulin spike that will put your body into muscle building mode (anabolic state). If you choose not to eat anything directly after completing your workout, you could risk forcing your body into breaking down your own muscle to provide instant energy (catabolic state).

What are complex carbohydrates?

Also known as starches, complex carbohydrates are made of three or more chemical links of sugars, and will take longer for the body to break down than simple carbohydrates.

Bodybuilders, or anyone planning to build up lean muscle while keeping body fat to a low level, will often cut carbohydrates back drastically in favour of a higher protein diet to achieve this. While it’s regular practice for those heading into a bodybuilding contest, it’s not something that should be done long-term as eating carbohydrates plays a strong role in muscle building.

While it is wise to avoid consuming too many simple carbohydrates, complex carbohydrates supply slow burning fuel called glycogen for longer lasting energy, which means you can continue to train hard and make progress with your workouts. Without the sustainable energy that complex carbohydrates supply, it would be impossible to get through a gruelling workout without collapsing from exhaustion, or becoming too fatigued to complete the exercise session.

Eating too many complex carbohydrates at one meal is never a good idea. When you eat more carbohydrates you need to burn them before you start burning fat, eat less and you have less carbohydrates to burn before you start burning fat. So by keeping the portions smaller, and eating little and often throughout the day will keep your body well supplied with a good source of complex carbohydrates and essential nutrients that it can use right away, and minimise the risk of oversupplying excess carbohydrates, and therefore reduce the risk of extra body fat storage.

Always choose high-fibre complex carbohydrates rather than over processed ones. The extra fibre slows down digestion and supplies a steady source of energy to keep your blood sugar levels steady, but will also use up more calories during digestion than highly processed alternatives.

Sources of complex carbohydrates

Grains and grain products are a rich source of complex carbohydrates, but whole grains containing the bran are considered a better source than over-processed foods such as white bread, white pasta and white rice. Go for stone ground wholemeal bread, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, and whole-rolled oats.

Other grains and grain products to look out for are barley, millet, quinoa, wheat germ AND buckwheat, as well as whole-grain breakfast cereals without added sugar. Beans and pulses are also a good source of complex carbohydrates and fibre, and can pack a healthy dose of protein too, so go for chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, and Soybeans.

Some vegetables like broccoli and sweet-corn are naturally high in complex carbohydrates and take longer to digest than other vegetables, such as green leafy vegetables and salad leaves.

When to use complex carbohydrates

When you put your body through an intense workout session you cause your blood sugar levels to drop drastically. Taking in some complex carbohydrate combined with simple carbohydrates post workout is a good idea. This will supply the body with the instant energy boost it needs following a gruelling workout, followed by a sustained supply of energy from the complex carbohydrate to help keep your blood sugar levels steady, and avoid any sudden blood sugar crashes.

Eating a small amount of complex carbohydrate with your meals will also help to keep your blood sugar levels stable, and keep a constant release of insulin going into your system to aid in muscle building during rest periods.

Boring disclaimer warning

This article was written by a Muscle Mayhem staff member. The information on this site is provided in good faith. Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program. All opinions expressed on this site are our own. Always seek professional advice before engaging in any physical activity or diet.