Eating a whole-food plant-based diet will enable you to stop counting carbohydrates. 

We have strong opinions on the keto diet and this post is the first in a series we'll be doing looking at the science of why this weight loss gimmick is short-sighted and potentially very dangerous to your health. For longevity and performance, nothing beats a whole-food plant-based diet.

Stop thinking about simple and complex carbs. It's the wrong thing to focus on. You have likely been conditioned to think simple is bad and complex is good. The real situation is far more nuanced than that. Fruit has both simple and complex carbs - and so does cake. Simply looking simple at complex carbs isn't really telling you all that much. The important thing to be thinking about is glycemic load, or how much food raises your blood sugar.

Let's start with some definitions:

Simple Carbohydrates - Monosaccharides and disaccharides.  A monosaccharide is a single saccharide molecule.  A disaccharide is two of them stuck together.  

Examples of simple carbs:

  • sugar
  • corn syrup
  • fruit juice
  • refined grains

Complex Carbohydrates - Polysaccharides.  Basically a long string of simple carbs stuck together.  

Examples of foods with complex carbs:

  • whole fruit
  • vegetables
  • nuts
  • seeds
  • beans
  • whole grains

That's it! Your body breaks down, or digests, the complex carbs more slowly so they increase your blood sugar level less than a simple carb.

But that's only a small part of the whole picture. Biting into an apple and taking a sip of apple juice is not the same thing. Your body is going to respond much differently even though they're both simple carbs. All the fiber in the whole apple helps to slow the digestive process, thus lower blood sugar spike. Whole grains have complex carbs but when they're refined down to white flour, with all the fiber and nutrients stripped away, that slice of bread is about as nutritious as a spoonful of sugar.

Now that we got that out of the way, let's introduce some far more helpful metrics. Couple more definitions first (we promise these are the last ones):

Glycemic Index (GI): A system that ranks foods on a scale from 1 to 100 based on their effect on blood-sugar levels. In other words, how quickly a food breaks down into sugar in your bloodstream. 

Glycemic Load (GL): Similar to Glycemic index except it also considers common serving size to give a more accurate indicator of a food's effect on blood-sugar levels. 

It's possible for a food to have a high glycemic index, and a low glycemic load (carrots are an example). Basically glycemic load is the one you should be paying attention to. Here's the glycemic load of some common foods:

Low Glycemic Load (10 or under)

  • Beans (kidney, garbanzo, pinto, soy and black)
  • Fiber rich fruits and vegetables (carrots, green peas, apples, grapefruit and watermelon)
  • Cereals made with 100% bran
  • Lentils
  • Nuts
  • Seeds

Medium Glycemic Load (11-19)

  • Whole-wheat pastas
  • Some breads made with whole grains
  • Oatmeal
  • Barley
  • Fruit juices without added sugar
  • Brown rice
  • Sweet potato

High Glycemic Load (20 or more)

  • Sweetened beverages
  • Candy
  • Sweetened fruit juices
  • White rice
  • White bread
  • White pasta

Here's a more comprehensive list of both GI and GL for over 100 common foods from Oregon State University:

The takeaway here is that the form your food takes has a huge impact on how nutritious it is. Processing/refining generally increases a food's glycemic load. Always choose plant-based whole foods when possible and avoid foods with added sugar. As long as you're doing that simple vs complex carbs won't matter. 

Reference Links:
Physicians Commitee for Responsible Medicine, Complex vs Simple Carbs:

Oregon State University, GI and GL for 100+ common foods:

Harvard Institute for Public Health, GI for 60+ common foods:

Harvard Institute for Public Health, The Lowdown on Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load:

HealthChris Lambrou