CARBOHYDRATES : Whole or refined… what choices do you make?

CARBOHYDRATES : Whole or refined… what choices do you make?

What do you think of when you hear the word “carbs?” White bread? Take-away pizza? A big serving of hot chips? That massive slice of birthday at last weekends party? A lot of the time “carbs” are associated with junk food. I think it has to do with the fact that we are bombarded with these refined carbs in every day life but if we take the time to realise what carbohydrates are and their natural sources you will see that not only are there PLENTY more food items classified as carbohydrates but these sources can also be very healthful (and on the flipside – with refined carbohydrates – very easy to over consume.)

Carbohydrates are a major fuel source for some cells. Our brain, nervous and red blood cells rely highly on carbohydrates & we use carbohydrates when performing high levels of physical activity. Carbohydrates supply us with 4 Calories/g, prevent proteins from being broken down as an energy source, prevent ketosis (which can lead to death in the long run), regulate blood glucose levels and (small amounts) are used for cellular body structures. We NEED carbohydrates.

A carbohydrate is identified by it’s size. Biochemically important carbohydrates in the diet are

MONOSACCHARIDES – a single carbohydrate unit (monomer). Three most common in the diet are

  1. glucose – also known as blood sugar
  2. fructose – also known as fruit sugar
  3. galactose – usually found in mammalian milk. Chemically it is bonded to glucose to form lactose. Also called brain sugar.

You can see that each of these terms end in –ose. This designation (on food labels) means it’s a sugar.

DISACCHARIDES – a carbohydrate composed of two monosaccharides. Most common in the diet are

  1. sucrose – also known as table sugar which is refined from juices of sugar cane and sugar beets and naturally found in honey and maple syrup. A fructose and glucose monomer.
  2. lactose – also known as milk sugar. A galactose and glucose monomer.
  3. maltose – also known as malt sugar. Maltose is produced when plant carbohydrates or starches are broken down. Two glucose monomers.

POLYSACCHARIDES – a carbohydrate composed of many monosaccharides. Also known as complex carbohydrates. Plant sources contain complex carbohydrates, which are also called starch – fruits, vegetables & grains.

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Complex carbohydrates are derived from whole food products – fruits, vegetables or grains. As these whole products are broken down or refined the disaccharide or monosaccharide forms are produced which often have a sweet taste.

The following table can help you identify sources of complex or simple carbohydrates.


– mainly gluten free


– may contain gluten


  • apple
  • banana
  • cantaloupe
  • date
  • fig
  • grape
  • honeydew melon
  • kiwi fruit
  • lemon
  • mango
  • orange
  • papaya
  • quince
  • raspberry
  • strawberry
  • tangerine
  • watermelon

  • concentrated fruit juice
  • fruit flavoured sweets
  • jam



  • alfalfa
  • artichoke
  • broccoli
  • carrot
  • eggplant
  • garlic
  • kale
  • lettuce
  • mushroom
  • onion
  • peppers
  • radish
  • sweet potato
  • turnip

  • potato chips/crisps
  • vegetable juice
  • vegie chips



  • amaranth
  • brown rice
  • barley (not gluten free)
  • corn
  • dal
  • flaxseed
  • oats (not gluten free)
  • polenta
  • quinoa
  • rice
  • wheat (not gluten free)

  • bagel
  • biscuit
  • burger bun
  • cake
  • corn chips
  • doughnut
  • flavoured breakfast cereal
  • high fructose corn syrup
  • muffin
  • muesli bar
  • noodles
  • packaged cereal
  • pastry
  • pasta
  • pizza
  • wafer
  • white bread

  • whole nuts
  • nut flours



  • jelly
  • syrup
  • hard/soft candy
  • soft drinks
  • chocolate bars
  • table sugar (all colours)
  • energy drinks
  • soft serve ice-cream


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What are the major differences with these lists?

COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES – These sources are excellent for energy, fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. The energy obtained from natural, complex carbohydrate sources generally have a lower caloric value per gram, GI and GI load thus reducing blood sugar highs and lows – in other words keeping your energy levels more stable. Fibre – in the form of soluble and insoluble fibre – provides bulk to our faeces, helps keep us regular, bind to cholesterol and potential carcinogens (so they don’t stay in our bodies) & helps us feel fuller for longer. Vitamins are needed as cofactors to many chemical reactions in the body such as cellular energy metabolism (ATP) and for immunity. Minerals are needed for bone health, blood health and electrolyte balance. Phytonutrients have a number of known and yet to be discovered health benefits such as cancer fighting properties and skin health benefits.

Fruit - a healthful source of complex carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals
Fruit – a healthful source of complex carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals

REFINED CARBOHYDRATES – Refined sources have been separated from their plant source making them a more concentrated form of their whole food options. Because they are separated from their original plant form refined carbohydrates are stripped of most of the benefits of complex carbohydrates. They provide concentrated energy (for quick bursts of energy) and little other nutrients.

Cakes, pastries & puddings - made from multiple ingredients that are combined from a ground form and usually very sweet - refined carbs!
Cakes, pastries & puddings – made from multiple ingredients that are combined from a ground form and usually very sweet – refined carbs!

For example a tablespoon of sugar will provide only energy (about 50 Calories) and having some red grapes provides energy as well as fibre, vitamin B-1, B-3, B-6, vitamin E, sodium, potassium, calcium, iron and zinc. Biologically our bodies will use up what sugars it needs from the diet first, then it will restore levels of glycogen (human’s form of storing energy) in the liver and muscles and any excess carbohydrates after those two processes have been fulfilled are stored as adipose tissue (fat).

The lack of nutrients, fibre, vitamins and minerals in refined carbohydrates often leave you wanting more making it easy to over eat leading to weight gain and other health problems. A common problem in our current lives.

A simple rule to follow would be if it looks like it’s original plant form, it would be safe to say it’s in a complex carbohydrate.

Some examples would be choosing passionfruit to drinking a can of Passiona, a blueberry muffin baked with whole rolled oats as a base to a white flour blueberry muffin bought at a chain coffee shop, or snacking on mixed nuts over a caramelized almond slice. By choosing whole foods most of the time and limiting consumption of refined carbohydrates you will find your days will be full of energy, you will feel less hunger, weight gain won’t occur easily and you will avoid chronic health problems.

So what are your daily choices? Complex or refined???


1 – Marieb, E. & Hoehn, K., ‘Human Anatomy and Physiology’ Pearson Education

2 – Byrd-Bredbenner C., Berning, J., Beshgetoor, D., and Moe, G, Contemporary Nutrition – A Functional Approach, McGraw Hill, New York

3 – H. Stephen Stoker, ‘General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry’, 2013


I'm currently studying a Bachelor in Health Science - Nutritional Medicine with a background in dance and fitness. I believe sharing knowledge is the key. I hope my love for food, fitness and well-being along with my studies helps you in finding something useful. Enjoy!

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