Which Foods Are Carbohydrates? Simple vs. Complex

Medically Reviewed on 5/9/2022

What are three main types of carbohydrates

Foods with carbohydrates
Carbohydrates can be categorized into two types: simple and complex.

Carbohydrates are a type of nutrient that gets broken down into sugars inside your body and can be found in many foods and beverages. Those sugars are then used as fuel for energy.

There are three main types of carbohydrates:

  • Sugar: Sugar is the simplest form and occurs naturally in some foods, including fruits, vegetables, and honey. It is also found in processed foods, such as pastries, chocolates, and candies.
  • Starch: Starch is a complex carb that occurs naturally in vegetables (especially the tuberous ones like yam, sweet potato, and potato), whole grains (rice, bread), beans (lima beans, green beans, pinto beans, black beans), and peas (English peas, snow peas, snap peas).
  • Fiber: Fiber is also a complex carbohydrate that occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, cooked dry beans, and peas. 

Are all carbohydrates bad for you?

Carbs have gotten a bad rap. Many people believe that carbs cause weight gain, bad skin, and even diseases like diabetes. But not all carbohydrates are bad. Carbs are your body’s main energy source, have a rightful place in your diet, and are present in almost all kinds of food. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), carbs are one of the most important macronutrients (others being protein and fats) that provide your body with calories, or energy, in large amounts. This energy is essential to maintaining body functions and vital to your overall health.

But while carbohydrates are an important part of a healthy diet, some carbs are better for you than others.

Simple vs. complex carbohydrates: Differences

  • Simple carbs, also called refined carbs, are the villains of the carb family because they can cause blood sugar spikes and other negative effects on the body. 
  • Complex carbs, on the other hand, offer a myriad of health benefits.
Table: Unhealthy (refined) carbs vs. complex (healthy) carbs
Healthy carbs (complex carbs) Unhealthy carbs (refined carbs)

Takes the body longer to break down into sugars.

Rapidly broken down into simpler sugars in the body.

Found in unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains (rice, wheat, oats, millets, muesli), vegetables (peas, potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, carrots, brinjals,) fruits, and beans.

Found in white bread, sodas, corn flakes, instant foods, ice cream, chocolate, pastries, and other highly processed or refined foods.

Also found in refined flour.

Good for promoting healthy bacteria in the gut.

May have a role in blood sugar management and weight loss.

Bad for gut bacteria and gut immunity.

Causes weight gain, interferes with weight loss, and promotes diabetes and heart disease.

High fiber content causes blood sugar to remain stable between meals.

Keeps insulin levels in check.

Low fiber content causes blood sugars to spike between meals.

Increases insulin levels.

Helps you feel full and maintain that feeling of fullness throughout the day.

Causes cravings and binges.

Sources of complex carbs, such as whole grains and fruits, are also rich in vitamin B complex, magnesium, potassium, and good fats.

Most refined carbs are stripped of various nutrients during processing.

How many carbohydrates should you eat in a day?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a diet with all five of the main food groups is recommended.

  • About 45-65% of your diet should be made up of complex carbs. 
  • Avoid simple carbs as much as possible. 
  • If you’re aiming for 2000 calories per day, limit carbs to 225 and 325 grams a day. This means between 900 and 1,300 calories per day should be from carbohydrates. 
  • Less than 10% of the calories consumed a day should come from added sugar. That means no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day.

Using these rough estimates, try to follow the eating patterns below:

  • 50% of your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables.
  • 25% of your plate should be filled with whole grains.
  • 25% of your plate should be filled with protein (meat, fish, beans, eggs, or dairy).


According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.” See Answer

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Medically Reviewed on 5/9/2022
Mayo Clinic. Carbohydrates: How Carbs Fit Into a Healthy Diet, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/carbohydrates/art-20045705