The general advice I've read, including from Dietary Guidelines for Americans essentially states "prefer complex carbohydrates to simple carbohydrates." This is generally due to the fact that simple carbohydrates make the consumer feel less full, leading to overeating, have often very low, if any, quantity of fiber, and/or other nutrients, and are high glycemic indexed, which can lead to conditions like diabetes (see here).

So my question is, assuming a healthy individual who engages in 600-800 moderate to high intensity exercise minutes per week (determined by heart rate level), and assuming 400-500 of those minutes are cardiovascular exercises such as running or bicycling, with the remainder strength training, is there any benefit to consuming simple carbohydrates ever? Can or should they be stripped from the diet altogether? Personally, the only time that I've felt them necessary is in emergencies where e.g. after a long (2-3) bout of cardio exercise, I've accidentally mismanaged my complex carbohydrate intake for the day and am feeling symptoms of low or extremely low blood sugar. I've also seen foods such as candy bars and sodas used to treat a diabetic individual in cases of emergency, however that is beside the scope of this question as in this question I am only curious as it relates to healthy, non-diabetic individuals who perform the aforementioned amount of activity level per week.

It seems that in commonly available guidance and literature, there is little to no benefit of simple carbohydrates, but some risk. However, assuming proper portions, there seems to be little to no risk, but benefits of consuming complex carbohydrates. However, no literature that I've read has explicitly stated whether or not completely excluding simple carbohydrates is appropriate for active individuals.

1 Answer 1


Is there any benefit to consuming simple carbohydrates ever?

Yes, below are a couple scenarios where eating simple carbs are beneficial. Overconsumption as you noted is the main issue surrounding simple carbs.

  • Fruit often contains simple carbs such as fructose, but they also contain tons of vitamins and minerals.

  • It is fairly common for athletes to eat simple carbs right before competitions that require short bursts of energy. This can be something like bananas with honey. Typically you see this in sports like sprinting rather than long distance running. If you are looking for endurance, you should consider more complex carbs since they digest slower.

  • Bodybuilders will carb deplete a few days before a competition. The body builder will end up burning off their glycogen storages, and can lose 5-15 lbs in just a few days. Your body allows you to take in much more glycogen than normal after being depleted which allows your muscles to be supersaturated with water and glycogen causing muscles to look much bigger for a short while. This is why you will see a lot of body builders eating candy bars back stage.

Can or should they be stripped from the diet altogether?

The biggest reason to consume simple carbs is fast energy for high-intensity exercise or in the case of body builders, aesthetics. If you are sedentary or train at lower intensities, you should keep your simple carbs to a minimum, preferably with the majority coming from fruits. This being said, it won't kill you to have something you really enjoy, like a candy bar every once in a while. I would however caution against removing all fruits from your diet simply because they have a fast digesting carb inside them.

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