Complex carbohydrates are made up of sugar molecules that are strung together in long, complex chains. Complex carbohydrates are found in foods such as peas, beans, whole grains, and vegetables. The body turns both simple and complex carbohydrates into glucose (blood sugar), but blood glucose levels rise slowly when complex carbohyrdrates are digested. Glucose is used in the cells of the body and in the brain. Any unused glucose is stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen for use later.
Complex carbohydrate foods provide vitamins, minerals, and fiber that are important to the health of an individual. The majority of carbohydrates should come from complex carbohydrates (starches), rather than processed or refined sugars, which do not have the vitamins, minerals, and fiber found in complex and natural carbohydrates. Refined sugars are often called "empty calories" because they have little to no nutritional value apart from colors.
Last reviewed 12/26/2011 by Harvey Simon, MD, Editor-in-Chief, Associate Professor of Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Physician, Massachusetts General Hospital.
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