Simple Carbohydrates. A Hazard to Your Health?

As an inpatient dietitian, I work with patients who oftentimes are managing a variety of health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. When it comes to preventing these complex medical conditions, the answer may involve something simple — simple carbohydrates, that is.

While it’s never as easy as placing blame on one specific element in American diets, research has shown that high intake of simple carbohydrates can have a negative impact on our bodies and could lead to long-term health issues.

Simple vs. Complex

So what’s a simple carbohydrate, exactly? They’re quick sources of energy that our bodies can digest and use quickly. Table sugar, jelly, soda and candy are all simple sugars. On the other hand, complex carbs — think fruits, vegetables and whole grains — often contain more fiber and are used by the body more slowly for energy.

What’s wrong with quick energy? Because these simple carbs are digested and broken down into glucose quickly, we end up with a large amount of glucose (or sugar) in our blood all at once. If our body doesn’t have a way to use this sugar right away (and since, chances are, we’re sitting at a desk or on the couch and don’t need a bunch of energy at that moment), your body will likely store this as fat.

Moreover, this can lead to insulin resistance. Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas that helps take glucose from our blood and move it to cells that need the energy. When we have a lot of glucose in our blood, our pancreas has to work extra hard to make enough insulin to take care of all that glucose. Over time, things stop working quite as they should, and we see insulin resistance.

Why is this so important? Elevated blood sugars and abdominal obesity are two risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome, which makes a person at higher risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Reduce Your Risk Factors

For starters, being at a healthy weight can help reduce your risk of developing these chronic conditions.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each week, and strength training should be a part of that. Watching your portion sizes can also help with weight loss.

  • Read food labels to see how many calories are in a serving (and what the suggested serving size is — it may be smaller than you think!)
  • Use smaller plates for mealtime and don’t eat snacks straight out of the container
  • Eat at the table without extra distractions (like the TV or a computer)

Second, choose fewer simple, refined carbohydrates and more complex, fiber-rich ones.

How do you do that? Reduce your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as juice, sweetened teas and soda. Swap out white breads, pasta and crackers for whole grain versions. Eat plenty of whole fruits and vegetables — the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests 2 ½ cups of vegetables per day and 2 cups of fruit.

Looking for even more guidance? Ask your health care provider or a registered dietitian about your diet or weight loss concerns. Choose complex carbs and live well!

Meet the Author

Olivia Johnson, RD, CD is a registered dietitian working primarily with neuro and cardiac patients at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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