What Are Complex Carbs? Breaking it Down with Recipe Ideas

Written by
8fit Team @ 8fit
mediterranean quinoa salad
Written by
8fit Team @ 8fit
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Are carbs the enemy? With the explosion of low-carb diets these days, there’s a definite trend towards eating fewer carbs, even though your body actually needs them to function properly, especially complex carbs. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, healthy people should get 50 to 65 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates and the rest from the other two macronutrients: fat and protein.

But here’s the deal: carbs don’t mean a thing if we don’t take into account their source and quality. And with plenty of myths surrounding carbs, it’s not easy to set apart fact from fiction. So, how do you tell the difference between good and bad carbohydrates? We’re here to help you make the right choice when it comes to what carbs you put on your plate.

What are complex carbs versus simple carbs?

Carbs are your body's primary energy source and an essential part of a healthy diet. We often associate carbs with white bread and pasta but they are so much more than that. Vegetables themselves contain carbs.

That said, not all carbs are equal or should have your favors. One important distinction to consider is between simple and complex carbohydrates. While both simple and complex carbohydrates are turned to glucose in the body and used as energy, the major differences between the two are their composition and how the body breaks them down.

Simple carbs are essentially easy-to-digest, basic sugars. Their simple molecular structure makes it easy for the body to break them down and use them as fast sources of energy, causing swings in blood sugar levels. Complex carbs, on the other hand, take longer to break down leading to a gradual release of energy for the body.

This doesn’t mean you need to skip simple carbs altogether though. First off, many foods contain different types of carbs, making it tricky to simply avoid simple carbs. And simple carbs don’t have to be unhealthy either. Fruits and vegetables naturally contain simple carbs for instance, and so do honey and milk.

Where you need to be careful is with simple carbs that have been processed, namely refined sugars. When carbs go through the process of refinement, they are essentially stripped of what made them healthy. The removal of most of the fiber, nutrients, and vitamins makes these simple carbs 'empty calories' that you should limit in your diet. These include cakes, white bread, white pasta, sodas and so on.

Why should you eat complex carbs in the first place?

Spiced lime chicken and green peas recipe

Carbs tend to have a bad reputation. Thing is, carbs provide the fuel we need to think, move, and take on each and every day. Carbs are the body’s preferred source of energy and everyone needs them. And when we say we need carbs, we mainly mean healthy complex carbohydrates.

Indeed, while slowing down on simple and refined carbs is generally a good idea and has benefits (increased fat burn, higher energy, reduced cravings, etc.), complex carbs can fit well in a balanced diet. Just take a look at some of the benefits below!

Complex carbs contain more fiber

Fiber’s benefits are two-fold: it protects your heart health and can help you lose weight. Fiber is thought to have the ability to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, making it ideal as part of a heart disease prevention plan. Foods that are rich in soluble fiber also keep your microbiome healthy and promote overall fat loss by reducing your appetite.

If you're interested in losing weight, read our five tips on how to lose body fat.

Complex carbs contain more nutrients

This is the main reason you should feel free to indulge in complex carbs: they are full of goodness and contain plenty of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. If it’s nutritional value that you’re after, complex carbs are what you should be looking at.

Complex carbs take longer to digest

Because it’s more difficult to break down complex carbs, it gives your body long-lasting energy. Complex carbs make you feel fuller for longer and reduce cravings. They also keep your blood sugar levels steady and help you avoid the spike in sugar followed by the crash that you get from simple carbs.

A complex carbs list

So there you have it, carbs demystified. Are you ready to put carbs back in the front row? By that, we don’t mean that you should load up on cake, but rather make smart carb choices. Balanced nutrition means complex carbohydrates deserve a place of honor on the menu. As a general rule, foods such as legumes, grains, seeds, and starchy vegetables are high in complex carbohydrates. To help you decide what you eat, here is our list of essential complex carbohydrates.

Whole-wheat bread

Bread is a common staple, and slowing down on simple carbs doesn’t mean you need to cut it out entirely. Instead of choosing a heavily processed white flour bread, go for a healthier alternative such as a 100% whole grain bread.

Whole-wheat pasta

The same goes for pasta. Opt for pasta that is made with 100% whole grains. The fiber contained in the whole grains will help you maintain a healthy weight, feel full for longer, as well as lower your risk of heart disease.

Brown rice

Brown rice or wild rice is the healthier version of white rice, which has been stripped of most of its goodness. On top of being rich in fiber, it contains an impressive amount of micronutrients such as iron, zinc, and selenium. Red rice, gold rice or black rice are also whole grain types of rice and a great option too.

Quinoa

On top of being one of the only plant sources of complete protein, quinoa seeds contain B vitamins, minerals (iron, magnesium), and heart-healthy fats such as omega-3 and omega-9 fatty acids. Another high-protein seed to try is buckwheat.

Quinoa burgers

Quinoa Burgers

30 min500 kcal
Ingredients
  • ½ cup water
  • ½ spring onion
  • 1 whole egg
  • ¼ cup quinoa (uncooked)
  • ½ cucumber
  • 1 tsp black pepper
  • ¼ cup Greek yogurt, plain (low-fat)
  • a tiny bit of salt
  • 1 tsp olive oil (extra virgin)
  • ¼ cup ground almonds/almond flour
  • 1 Tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • ½ bell pepper
  • 1 tsp curry powder (dry)
  • 1 garlic clove
Method
  1. Rinse the quinoa thoroughly. Place two parts water to one part quinoa in a saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil.
  2. Simmer the quinoa for about 15 minutes. Take the quinoa off the heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes.
  3. Wash the bell pepper and spring onion, remove seeds from the bell pepper and chop finely with onion. Peel the garlic and chop it into small pieces.
  4. In a large bowl, mix quinoa, ground almonds, egg, spring onion, bell pepper, curry powder, half of the parsley and half of the garlic.
  5. Heat oil in a pan on medium heat. Form patties out of the quinoa mixture. Heat until golden brown (around 6 minutes) and flip carefully. Cook for another 2-3 minutes.
  6. In another bowl, mix greek yogurt with the remaining parsley, garlic, salt and pepper.
  7. Wash the cucumber and cut into thin slices.
  8. Serve the patties on a plate, top with Greek yogurt dip and enjoy with fresh cucumber.

Read more about quinoa and check out these healthy recipes.

Oats

Oats are one of the healthiest grains out there. They fuel the body with energy and pack a punch in terms of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. It’s also one of the best complex carbs for weight loss.

Thirsty? Try this oat milk recipe.

Millet

Millet is great if you are looking for a gluten-free alternative. This grain is full of protein, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. Other grains such as farro, kamut, and bulgur also provide great complex carbs options.

Barley

Want a change from wheat? Try barley. It’s a high-fiber grain that is loaded with vitamin B (great for the mood), selenium (great for the immune system) and manganese (great for the bones). Otherwise, try spelt for equally nutritious complex carbs.

Peas

Green peas are ridiculously high in fiber and a good source of A, C, and K vitamins and minerals (folate).

Spiced lime chicken and green peas recipe

Spiced Lime Chicken and Green Peas

15 min400 kcal
Ingredients
  • 4 oz chicken breast
  • ½ lime (~1 ¼ oz)
  • 1 cups green peas (~5 oz)
  • ⅓ tsp paprika (dry)
  • ⅓ tsp oregano (fresh or dry)
  • a tiny bit of salt
  • ¼ tsp black pepper
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (extra virgin)
Method
  1. Heat up the green peas in a saucepan on medium heat with a bit of water for 3-4 minutes (or until heated through).
  2. Mix the spices (paprika, oregano and pepper) with freshly squeezed lime juice, cover the chicken in the mixture and marinate for 30 minutes to over night (optionally).
  3. Heat the olive oil in a pan. Cook the chicken over medium heat until cooked through, about 3-5 minutes per side, let sit for 5 minutes and slice before serving with the drained peas and a bit of salt.

Black beans

Out of all the beans, this dark legume has the highest amount of antioxidants, which form a strong defense against heart disease. Of course, other beans such as lima, navy, pinto, fava or kidney are still very much packed with fiber and protein.

Hungry? Try making this avocado and black bean burger.

Lentils

Lentils contain fiber, protein and plenty of nutrients such as folate, manganese, and iron. If you’re looking for a low glycemic index, choose green lentils over red ones.

fish with spiced lentils

Fish with Spiced Lentils

15 min500 kcal
Ingredients
  • ¼ lime (~⅔ oz)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil (extra virgin)
  • ½ onion (medium sized) (~2 oz)
  • ¼ cups tomato sauce, without sugar (~2 ¼ oz)
  • ⅔ cups lentils (canned and drained) (~4 ½ oz)
  • 3 ½ oz white fish
  • a tiny bit of curry powder (dry)
  • a tiny bit of salt
  • a tiny bit of black pepper
  • 1 ½ tsp honey or agave syrup (~⅓ oz)
Method
  1. Heat half of the olive oil in a pan.
  2. Place the white fish in the pan and fry for around 10 minutes on medium heat. Turn at 5 minutes.
  3. Peel and chop the onion. Drain and rinse the lentils., Heat the remaining oil in a small pot and sauté the onion for around 1 minute. Add lentils, tomato sauce, curry powder, salt, pepper, honey and the juice from the lime. Stir and heat the mixture over medium heat for 3 minutes.
  4. Serve the white fish with the spiced lentils on a plate.

Chickpeas

Small in size but big in micronutrients, chickpeas contain heaps of protein and fiber. They’re also high in calcium and phosphate, both of which promote bone health.

warm and crunchy chickpeas

Crunchy Chickpea Breakfast Bowl

10 min500 kcal
Ingredients
  • ½ cups bell peppers (any color, chopped) (~2 ½ oz)
  • 2 cups spinach leaves (raw) (~2 oz)
  • 1 onion (medium sized) (~4 oz)
  • 1 cup chickpeas/garbanzo beans (canned and drained) (~5 oz)
  • 2 tsp sunflower seeds (~⅓ oz)
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil (extra virgin)
  • a pinch of salt and pepper
  • 1 tsp garlic powder
  • ½ tsp paprika (dry)
Method
  1. Wash spinach.
  2. Heat the oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add the spinach and toss to coat. Cook the spinach until it begins to wilt, about 4 minutes. Remove the spinach to a bowl, leaving remaining oil in the pan.
  3. Peel and chop the onion, and wash and chop the pepper.
  4. Add the onion, peppers and seasonings to the pan. Sauté for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onion is translucent.
  5. Drain the chickpeas and add to the pan, mixing together and cooking for another 3 minutes.
  6. Combine with spinach and top with sunflower seeds. Enjoy warm.

Sweet potato

This starchy root vegetable contains plenty of vitamin C, which boosts the immune system and beta carotene, which reduces the risk of heart disease. It’s cousin the potato isn’t quite as high-profile but it’s still an interesting option.

Chicken and sweet potato curry

Chicken and Sweet Potato Curry

35 min500 kcal
Ingredients
  • 1 medium sweet potato
  • 400ml tin coconut milk
  • 250ml water
  • 2 Tbsp honey
  • 200g natural yogurt
  • 1 Tbsp mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp dried coriander
  • 3 curry leaves (or bay leaves)
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp garam masala
  • 1 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 4 Tbsp desiccated coconut
  • 600g chicken
  • 3 Tbsp coconut oil
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt & pepper
Method
  1. Preheat oven to 200°C, Slice sweet potato into 1-inch slices, then cut into quarters. Add to a roasting tray, add 1 Tbsp olive oil, toss to coat and then pop in the oven on the middle shelf for 30 minutes.
  2. While sweet potato is cooking, add 3 Tbsp coconut oil to a medium pot, when oil is hot, add mustard seeds. Once fizzing add the curry or bay leaves, garam masala, cumin, chili powder, turmeric and a pinch of salt. Cook for 2 minutes to release flavor.
  3. Add the chicken and brown.
  4. Add coconut milk, water, and desiccated coconut. Bring to boil and then lower to a simmer until liquid is reduced by a quarter (about 10 mins).
  5. Stir in the honey and yogurt until combined. Then once sweet potato is cooked, add it to the pot and remove from heat.
  6. Season to taste.

Parsnips

Sick of carrots? Opt for parsnips which are also a good source of folate and vitamin C, manganese and vitamin K.

Butternut Squash

High in carbs but low in calories, the butternut squash is also particularly high in vitamin E which promotes skin health. Just like the acorn squash, it’s jam-packed with blood-sugar-regulating soluble fiber, diabetes-preventing magnesium, more vitamin C than you could dream of.

Veggies! Try adding these other high-carb vegetables to your diet.

In the world of nutrition, carbs have often been vilified but many high-carb foods are actually super healthy. Looking for recipe ideas to include more complex carbs in your diet? Sign up for the 8fit app now.

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