Complex Carbohydrates Explained


With all of the hype out there about nutrition, everybody is talking about how good complex carbohydrates are for you.  I’m not trying to disagree with them.  I just feel that you should know more about complex carbohydrates and judge for yourself what to do.  When I was in college, we sometimes had to tutor people outside of our exercise science program about basic nutrition.  Needless to say we were shocked about how clueless most people were about nutrition.  Nobody knew what carbohydrates, fats or proteins actually were.  With this article, hopefully you will have a better understanding about nutrition, more specifically complex carbohydrates.   


What Are Carbohydrates Anyway?

So what are carbohydrates anyway?  Well, simply put they are sugars.  Sugars are among the most basic form of energy available.  They are absorbed rapidly by the body and assist with workout recovery as well as fueling the central nervous system (i.e. brain and spinal column). 

Carbohydrates are known as macronutrients.  This means that they provide energy (calories), along with fats and proteins.  More specifically, each gram of carbohydrate is worth 4 calories. 

Carbohydrates are excellent for athletes.  These macronutrients are broken down by the digestive tract and muscles very rapidly.  Constantly hitting your muscles hard everyday in brutal training sessions requires lots of energy.  Recovering from those workouts requires lots of energy as well. 


Simple vs. Complex Carbohydrates

Okay, so know we know what carbohydrates are and why they are good, but what are the different types? 

There are really only two types:

  • Simple
  • Complex



Simple carbohydrates are just simpler sugars.  They are usually only one or two molecules.  Although I could list all of them for you, it really isn’t necessary.  They all have very similar properties. 

Since there is really not that much complexity to their structure, these carbohydrates are the most easily broken down by the body.  Post workout meals and pre-workout meals are best utilized with simple carbohydrates, especially if blended in a bottle. 

Simple sugars can be a problem for weight loss.  The powerful anabolic hormone insulin gets awoken by the influx of simple carbohydrates.  The insulin response is measured by something called the glycemic index. 

If a particular food item stimulates insulin quicker, then it has a high glycemic index.  If insulin is stimulated slower, then it has a lower glycemic index.  Typically, if weight loss is your goal, then you want to eat foods with a lower glycemic index in order to lose weight.   



Complex carbohydrates, on the other hand, are much larger strands of sugar molecules.  These molecules are woven together into these complex chains of sugar molecules.  These are harder to break down by the body.  They are also not as quick and readily available as simple carbohydrates are.

These are better to eat throughout the day compared to simple carbs for both weight loss and for recovering from intense workouts.  You are getting a lot of calories in a very small amount of food. 

There are two types of complex carbohydrates:

  • Starch
  • Fiber



Starches range from grains to fruits and vegetables.  Starches are some of the purest forms of stored energy available.  It is this stored energy that can provide athletes with the most benefits both on and off of the field. 

If you think of it, plants get their energy from the sun, which is then converted into sugars via photosynthesis.  We then eat those sugars when we eat the plant.  So in a strange way we are actually eating sunlight. 

This is how humans get energy.  When athletes take too much powdered protein after a workout and too little carbohydrate, they are not getting that energy that they so desperately need.  In fact the human body needs more carbohydrate after a workout than it does protein. 

Aside from a scientific research article to prove this, just look around your local gym.  How many of you know “that guy” who has tried every single powdered protein supplement and has gotten little to no results?  Exactly, right now you can probably name a few off the top of your head. 

We need energy in order to survive and to thrive.   



Speaking of energy, fiber provides tons of energy as well.  Just not for humans unfortunately.  Let me explain. 

Fiber is a complex carbohydrate, just like starch.  It is even produced in plants.  The problem is we cannot digest it.  Fiber is made up of sugars called cellulose.  Cellulose requires specific enzymes in the digestive tract to break it down.  Humans do not have these enzymes. 

As a result you get fiber.  Fiber helps:

  • Lower LDL Cholesterol
  • Increase Fullness
  • Increase Digestive Bulk
  • Lose Weight

Fiber is an important part of any balanced diet.  No matter what, your health comes first. 


Examples Of Complex Carbohydrates

There are all kinds of complex carbohydrates, including:

  • Potatoes
  • Rice
  • Oats
  • Wheat
  • Quinoa
  • Farro
  • Buckwheat
  • Bread (all kinds)

Of all of the benefits of complex carbohydrates is that they are usually pretty affordable.  Some of the more high quality items on the list above, such as quinoa, may be a little on the expensive side but if you do your homework and shop smart you can get them for a good price. 


Complex Carbohydrates As Supplements

If, however, time is not available to cook or buy any of the items in the previous section you can always supplement.   

Oats and Whey

Oats and whey are a good supplement that can used as a pre-workout meal, post-workout meal and as a meal replacement.  The complex carbohydrates of oats are extracted and mixed with whey protein to both aid in glycogen replenishment and recovery post-workout; and to increase stamina and endurance pre-workout. 



Maltodextrin is similar to dextrose sugar in that they both originate from corn.  Dextrose, however, is a simple carbohydrate and maltodextrin is a complex carbohydrate.  This means that dextrose gets broken down and absorbed quicker than maltodextrin.  Although this difference is not that much, it can still help if dextrose give you an upset stomach.


Waxy Maize

Things get more complex with waxy maize.  This complex carbohydrate is derived from rice, barley and corn in order to give this supplement a much more starchy kick.  The result is slower digestion and lower blood sugar levels after consumption.  Definitely not a good choice for a post-workout meal.  If, however, dextrose, sucrose and maltodextrin bother your stomach, then it may be worth giving waxy maize a shot.    

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