Carbohydrate Classifications

Simple and Complex Carbohydrates | Other Terms Used to Describe Carbohydrates
Revolutionary Thinking | Good Carbs, Bad Carbs

Carbohydrates are a broad category of foods that eventually convert to glucose in the body. Glucose is the body's primary source of energy, followed by fat and protein. Carbohydrates are found in all foods with the exception of meats and animal fats. The two traditional categories of carbohydrates are "simple" and "complex."



Simple and Complex Carbohydrates


Simple Carbohydrates
Complex Carbohydrates
Those carbohydrates which are the sugars (glucose and fructose) found in foods like fruits, vegetables, dairy products (lactose), and foods made with processed sugar. In theory, simple carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels quickly. Complex carbohydrates are those carbohydrates which are starches and fiber found in breads, grains, and beans. In theory, complex carbohydrates raise blood sugar more slowly than simple carbohydrates.


In 1981 researchers David Jenkins and Thomas Wolever of the University of Toronto published a study suggesting that the "glycemic index" of foods be used to classify carbohydrates rather than the traditional "simple" and "complex" system.

Contrary to traditional belief, the study found that complex carbohydrates were actually digested faster than simple carbohydrates. Therefore, complex carbohydrates increased blood sugar much faster than simple carbohydrates.




Other Terms Used to Describe Carbohydrates


Refined Carbohydrates
Natural Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates are food items that have been processed such as crackers, candy bars, and breads and pastas that were made with white flour. Refined carbohydrates are thought to cause a sharp rise in blood sugar levels. Natural carbohydrates are those carbohydrates that are found in whole food items such as apples, carrots, brown rice, and string beans. Natural carbohydrates are thought to cause a smaller rise in blood sugar levels.

High Glycemic Carbohydrates*
Low Glycemic Carbohydrates*
High glycemic carbohydrates are those carbohydrates that cause a quick rise in blood sugar levels such as potatoes, carrots, and white bread. Low glycemic carbohydrates are those carbohydrates that cause a smaller rise in blood sugar levels such as peas, plums, and spinach.



*Revolutionary Thinking


The theory that all simple and refined carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels quickly while complex and natural carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels more slowly was not challenged until 1981.

In 1981 researchers David Jenkins and Thomas Wolever of the University of Toronto published a study suggesting that the "glycemic index" be instituted as a new and more precise way of classifying carbohydrates. The research was enlightening but continues to be controversial. Refer to article titled "The Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Theory" for additional information.



Note: Overall, the theory of "glycemic index" and "glycemic load" encourages greater consumption of whole foods like fruits and vegetables and fewer processed carbohydrate products.



Good Carbs, Bad Carbs


Those carbohydrates considered to be "good" have not been processed and contain a fair amount of fiber. These food types include oatmeal, whole grain bread, legumes, vegetables, fruit, and sugar-free whole grain cereals.

Those carbohydrates considered to be "bad" have been processed (or refined). These food types include white bread, white pasta, ice cream, candy, and pop.

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