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All About Simple Carbohydrates

Grace Aguirre, MS, RD
March 5, 2024
April 8, 2024

Carbohydrates or “carbs” are the sugars, starches, and fibers found in milk products and plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. They give us energy, but depending on their structure and how they are broken down during digestion, carbs are considered either “simple” or “complex,” and are digested differently.

Read on to check out the different types of simple carbohydrates, what they do to the body, and where you can find them!

What Makes a Carb “Simple?”

Simple Carbs, divided in to sugars and refined carbs, are simple in structure and are digested and absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly. They are usually either one or two sugar molecules stuck together, or a long, straight chain of sugar molecules that make up a starch.

What Foods Have Simple Carbs?


Examples of simple sugars on the labels are: Fructose, Glucose, Sucrose, and Lactose. They are found naturally in plants and dairy, provide fast energy for the body because they are digested and absorbed quickly, and they Increases blood sugars quickly. You can find simple sugars in both natural, and processed foods: 

  • Table sugar
  • Corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup
  • Palm sugar

Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbs are complex carbs that have been processed or modified to become less fibrous and more starchy. It includes basically anything made with white flour, and may also have “added” sugars, or even “natural” added sugars. You find them in most packaged foods, often along with other food additives and preservatives. Most importantly, they are digested and increase blood sugar quickly, and usually contain limited nutritional value. You get refined carbs from:

  • Most packaged breads, cakes, cookies and other baked goods
  • Most cereals
  • Pastas

Though processed foods are often high in refined simple carbs, and it is wise to limit highly processed foods in your diet, many minimally processed and whole foods naturally contain simple carbs as well. 

Can I Get Simple Carbs From Healthy Foods?

All whole and natural foods that contain carbohydrates will contain naturally occurring simple carbs (sugars). While they raise glucose more quickly and should be eaten with other foods that slow digestion (protein and fat), they are great for snacks and important for a healthy lifestyle. You can find these naturally-occuring simple carbs in:

  • Fruit (highest sugar content)
  • Honey (highest sugar content)
  • Maple Syrup (highest sugar content)
  • Milk (high sugar content)

There are other foods that are super rich in fiber, and have a little simple carbs, too. These are called “complex” carbs, which are much longer, tangled and complex chains of sugar molecules and are digested gradually. They still raise glucose, but super slowly. For more information on complex carbohydrates, read  “Carbohydrates, They’re Complex. In short, these special groups of carbs we want more of with meals, and can find them in:

  • Starchy vegetables (low simple carb content)
  • Whole grains (low simple carb content)
  • Legumes, nuts and seeds and (little to no simple carb content)

These whole foods can play an essential role in a balanced diet. Talk to your care team's registered dietitian through the Unified Care app today about the role that natural, simple carbs can play in your diet.

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