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.