Carbohydrates or saccharides are one of the three macronutrients alongside fat and proteins. Hence, as such, our bodies need them in larger amounts compared to micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals. They are also the primary source of energy in the body. It is also important to note that a carbohydrate is a biomolecule consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—thus, the name.
There are four categories of carbohydrates according to chemical grouping. These are monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. Examples of monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, and lactose, while examples of disaccharides are sucrose, lactose, and maltose. Oligosaccharides are abundant in plant fiber, while polysaccharides include starch, glycogen, galactogen, cellulose, and chitin.
However, aside from categorization based on chemical grouping, carbohydrates are also categorized based on their general structure and how the body breaks them down. These are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates.
Understanding the Difference Between Simple Carbohydrates and Complex Carbohydrates
Difference Based on Their Chemical Structure
A key difference between the two is their general chemical structure. Simple carbohydrates are made up of shorter chains of saccharide or sugar molecules. They are also called simple sugars. Note that monosaccharides are disaccharides fall under this category.
It is also important to note that simple carbohydrates are abundant in natural food sources such as fruits, vegetables, and milk. Furthermore, they are present in processed food products such as breakfast cereals, desserts and pastries, chocolates and candies, and sugary drinks such as sodas, as well as in processed “sugars” used in the food industry.
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are made of long chains of sugar molecules. They are specifically comprised of three or more linked sugars. Polysaccharides or polycarbonates such as storage polysaccharides and storage polysaccharides fall under this category.
Sources of these carbohydrates are whole grain foods and starchy vegetables. They are also found in refined grains such as processed corn, white rice, and white flour, thus making them present in bread, pastries, and other derivative food products.
Difference Based on Their Nutritional Value
Another difference between simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates centers on how quickly they are digested and absorbed in the body. Of course, simple carbohydrates are easier to digest because of their simpler chemical structure. Their digestion produces a spike in blood glucose, thus making them a short-lasting source of energy.
Complex carbohydrates are digested because of their complex structure. They also elevate the blood glucose level at a lower rate because their digestion produces a lower and steadier glucose release in the bloodstream. Hence, they are a longer-lasting source of energy.
Some would argue that complex carbohydrates are better than their simpler counterparts. There is some truth to this because they are abundant in less-processed and whole foods. Simple carbohydrates should also be avoided by people with diabetes or those who are aiming to control or lessen their weight. Note that excess blood glucose gets converted into body fat.
However, in several instances, simple carbohydrates are essential in maintaining a healthy and balanced diet. Note that they are found in most fruits and vegetables. They are also ideals for individuals who are suffering from hypoglycemia or low blood glucose level. Note that complex carbohydrates can be found in heavily processed food products such as bread and pastries.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Cummings, J. H. and Stephen, A. M. 2007. “Carbohydrate Terminology and Classification.” European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 61: S5-S18. DOI: 1038/sj.ejcn.1602936
- Slavin, J. and Carlson, J. 2014. “Carbohydrates.” Advances in Nutrition. 5(6): 760-761. DOI: 3945/an.114.006163