Refined Carbohydrates In Your Diet
Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman
Refined carbohydrates, or refined carbs, are grain products that have been processed by a food manufacturer so that the whole grain is no longer intact.
The refining or milling process removes dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals from a food product. If the nutrients have been added back, the refined grains or refined carbohydrates are called enriched grains.
How Do Refined Carbohydrates Impact Your Health
On my carbohydrates page I mention “the carbohydrate hypothesis of disease. This is the idea that most diseases of civilization are caused by our so-called Western diet, and that the ingredient in the Western diet that is most dangerous is refined carbohydrate. I have written extensively on this site and on my Psychology Today blog about the role of refined carbohydrate on specific medical conditions, including:
- how refined carbohydrates set the stage for acne: “The Secret to Outsmarting Your Acne.”
To learn more about the health risks associated with eating refined carbohydrates and added sugars, along with a helpful infographic listing simple ways to reduce your risk, please see my post “How to Diagnose, Prevent and Treat Insulin Resistance.“
Okay, enough already, on with the lists!
They Increase The Risk Of Heart Disease And Type 2 Diabetes
A diet high in refined carbs has been linked to heart disease and diabetes.
Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of these foods are more likely to develop insulin resistance or to be overweight . Refined carbs are also associated with higher triglyceride levels. Conversely, research shows that whole grains may help lower the risk of heart disease by lowering LDL cholesterol levels which aids in slowing the buildup of plaque .
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They Are Lower In Fiber
Whole grains consist of three parts: the bran, germ and endosperm. The bran and germ are high in fiber which helps keep you full longer and maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Refined carbs only contain the endosperm and this greatly reduces their fiber content .
Causes Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease occurs when too much fat is stored in your liver. This can be caused by several things, including obesity, drinking too much alcohol, and insulin resistance.
Refined carbs can contribute to fatty liver disease by causing insulin resistance. When your body becomes resistant to insulin, it cant effectively remove sugar from your blood. Instead, insulin resorts to its second function, converting the blood glucose into fat and storing it in the body, especially in the midsection and around the internal organs, including the liver.
Over time, this can lead to a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease , which is exactly what it sounds like: a buildup of fat in your liver thats not caused by alcohol consumption.
NAFLD is a serious problem that can lead to inflammation and scarring of the liver, which can eventually lead to liver failure. So, cutting back on refined carbs is a must if youre struggling with fatty liver disease. Signs You May Have A Bad Liver.
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The Details On Simple Carbohydrates
Foods that contain simple carbohydrates arent necessarily bad it depends on the food. For instance, fruits and dairy products contain some simple carbs, but they are drastically different from other foods that contain simple carbs, like cookies and cakes. Processed sweets tend to contain refined sugar, too, and lack key nutrients your body needs to be healthy, according to the AHA.
There are health benefits to eating fruit versus eating a piece of white bread, Galvin says. Fruit does contain fiber, and also antioxidants and polyphenols and other good nutritional benefits.
Dairy also contains healthy nutrients, such as calcium, protein, and sometimes probiotics , Galvin says. The protein component is key to helping dairy behave more like a complex carbohydrate. Protein helps slow the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream and helps keep appetite levels steady so you don’t have swings of insulin levels and blood glucose going up and down, Galvin says.
- Processed foods such as potato chips, granola bars, and crackers
And Galvin says that in general, you dont want to overdo your fruit intake, either. You still have to be careful with fruit, because it is going to be more rapidly absorbed than something like sweet potatoes or beans that are very high in fiber, she says.
Dr. Meyerowitz says that you can enjoy simple carbohydrates on occasion you just don’t want them to be your primary sources of carbs.
Are Refined Carbohydrates Truly Bad For You
While undeniably delicious, this kind of carbohydrate sadly isn’t the best option for you. “Refined carbs are void of essential nutrients, like B vitamins, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese, and seleniumall of which are in the bran and germ ,” Minchen says.
“In addition, fiber in refined carbs equates to a greater blood sugar spike and risk of poor blood sugar management,” she adds. This poor sugar management can often lead to more serious issues like Type 2 diabetes, obesity, chronic inflammation, and heart disease.
Because refined carbohydrates lack any real nutrition, they aren’t very filling or satisfying, and the body digests them rapidly. This can often lead to the need to eat more and difficulty managing diet choices, cravings, and healthy weight.
Weakens The Immune System
The immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work together to protect the body from infection. It recognizes and destroys foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites. It also helps the body recover from illness and injury by repairing damaged tissue.
Diet plays a key role in keeping your immune system strong, and refined carbs like white flour and sugar can disrupt the delicate balance of your immune system. This is because they cause your blood sugar levels to rise too high, which causes inflammation and weakens the bodys ability to fight off infection and disease. 10 Foods That Boost The Immune System
Choosing The Right Carbs
A good way to check-in and see if youre eating the most nutritious carbs is to determine if the carbs are in their most natural, whole form without added sugars. If theyre not, then you may be eating more refined carbs and sugar than is optimal for good health.
The Mediterranean Diet has been ranked as the #1 diet for many years and is a prime example of a diet rich in complex carbs and low in refined carbs.
A Mediterranean diet is a style of eating that focuses on plant-based foods. Its based on foods that people eat in countries such as Greece and Italy, but isnt limited to those countries.
The Mediterranean diet isnt as much of a diet as it is a lifestyle. Unlike many fad diets, there arent foods that are considered not allowed, nor are there any types of point system, measuring, etc. Because of this, it tends to be easier to adopt long-term, so it is more effective at providing health benefits.
The Mediterranean diet emphasizes plant-based foods as the backbone of the diet. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are abundant in this style of eating, as are healthy plant-based fats such as olive oil and avocados. Meat, dairy, processed foods, and refined sugar are avoided, and the emphasis is put on whole foods. While sugary drinks are avoided, moderate amounts of alcohol such as red wine are included, but of course, this is entirely optional.
The different types of foods in a Mediterranean-style diet include:
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Good Carbs Vs Bad Carbs
Carbohydrates are one of your body’s main sources of energy. Health organizations such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend that 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories should come from carbohydrates. However, the majority of these should be from complex, unrefined carbs rather than refined carbs .
Unlike simple carbs, complex carbohydrates are digested slowly, causing a gradual rise in blood sugar. They’re usually high in nutrients and fiber, which can help prevent serious disease, aid with weight-loss, and improve your energy levels. In general, good carbohydrates have a lower glycemic load and can even help guard against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular problems in the future.
Good carbs include:
Unrefined whole grains whole wheat or multigrain bread, brown rice, barley, quinoa, bran cereal, oatmeal.
Non-starchy vegetables spinach, green beans, Brussels sprouts, celery, tomatoes.
Legumes kidney beans, baked beans, peas, lentils.
Nuts peanuts, cashews, walnuts.
Fruit apples, berries, citrus fruit, bananas, pears.
Refined Carbs Can Increase Ldl Cholesterol Levels
Cholesterol is a type of lipid, or fat, that is found in all cells of the body. It is used to produce hormones and vitamin D.
There are two main types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL . HDL cholesterol is often referred to as good cholesterol because it helps remove LDL cholesterol from the arteries and transports it to the liver, where it can be broken down and eliminated from the body. LDL cholesterol, on the other hand, is often referred to as bad cholesterol because it can build up in the arteries and cause blockages that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
Eating too many refined carbs can cause your body to make more LDL cholesterol and less HDL cholesterol. This can lead to a buildup of plaque in your arteries, which can increase your risk for heart disease.
If you have high cholesterol or are at risk for it, limit the number of refined carbs you eat. Choose whole-grain bread and cereals, brown rice, and other unprocessed grains instead. These foods will give you more fiber and nutrients while helping to keep your blood sugar and cholesterol levels in check. How To Lower Cholesterol Naturally.
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Recommended Cookbooks That Eliminate Refined Carbs
21 Day Sugar Detox is written by holistic nutritionist Diane Sanfilippo. Every recipe in this fantastic cookbook is free of refined carbohydrates. Most are quite low in natural sugars and starches as well, making them suitable for low-carb diets. Diane provides accurate information, wise guidance, and delicious menu plans that allow for flexibility with respect to grains, legumes, dairy, and carbohydrate quantity.
Powerhouse husband and wife team Melissa and Dallas Hartwig have inspired countless people to eat real food. The Whole 30 is THE classic Paleo beginners guide and cookbook, and is chock full of moral support, education, and humor. Every recipe is free of refined carbohydrates, processed foods, grains, legumes, and dairy products. Their plan is designed to last for 30 days but Id recommend adding a few zeroes to that number.
This brilliantly creative whole foods cookbook is the brainchild of husband and wife team Michelle Tam and Henry Fong, and is designed to be fun for the whole family. All recipes are free of refined carbohydrates, grains, legumes and processed foods, and most are dairy-free. Nom Nom Paleo is a favorite in my household and we use their recipes all the time. You simply MUST try the Slow Cooker Kalua Pig. Yum.
How Refining A Grain Alters Its Nutritional Value
When you consume a whole grain or whole grain flour, youre getting all of the fiber, protein, vitamins, minerals, and nutritious fats that they have to offer, per the FDA. In refined grains, the bran and germ have been removedalong with all of that inherent nutritional value. Thats the main beef that nutrition experts have with refined grains. You are missing out on the many nutrients provided by the whole grain, board-certified health and wellness coach Kim Larson, RDN, tells SELF.
The particular nutrients that are lost during the refining process depend on what whole grain you start with. In general, though, per the FDA, much of the grains fiber and key vitamins and minerals, such as iron and the B vitamins niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin, and sometimes some protein, are removed during processing. Refined flours are then usually enriched, meaning some of those key nutrients lost during processing have been added back in, the FDA explains. But fiber isnt typically added back in, meaning most refined grains have very little fiber, if any.
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Do You Need Carbs In Your Diet
Yes. You can benefit from eating the right types and amount of carbs. Carbs can:
- Provide energy.
- Protect against disease.
- Control weight.
Carbohydrates are our bodys main source of energy, says Zumpano. For most people, carbs are an essential macronutrient that provides the energy to get through a busy day.
How Do Refined Carbs Affect Your Health
A diet high in refined carbohydrates tends to cause higher blood sugar and triglyceride levels. It has been associated with an increased risk of developing diabetes, cardiovascular disease , stroke, and hypertension .
Some of the risks of high blood sugar include:
- Cardiovascular disease
Some of the risks of high triglycerides include:
- Thickening of the arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke
- Inflammation of the pancreas
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Whole Vs Refined Carbs
Though there is a lot of information floating around about carbs, keep in mind that not all carbs are created equal.
There are many different types of carbohydrate-containing foods, and they can vary in their health effects.
Carbs are sometimes referred to as simple versus complex or whole versus refined.
Whole carbs are minimally processed and contain the fiber found naturally in the food, while refined carbs have been processed more and have had the natural fiber removed or changed.
Examples of whole carbs include:
Not all carbs are created equal. Refined carbs are linked to obesity and metabolic diseases, but whole carbohydrates, which are minimally processed, have many health benefits.
Order Healthy Dishes At Restaurants
What most restaurants have to offer is a plate filled with cheap but tasty refined carbs. While this satisfies your palate, hunger and cravings rear up their ugly head sooner than you hoped. And refined carbs can be found in everything from rice and paste to the myriad dessert options.
So, choose wisely. Order the dishes that do not contain bread but healthy, rich, whole veggies and fruits. Ask for brown rice, if required, instead of white rice. Drink sugarless beverages or just stick to water and make something healthy at home later on.
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Here’s Why You Should Avoid Refined Carbs
Carbs have been a hot topic in the diet world for many years, dating back to the 1960’s with the creation of the low carb Atkins diet, founded by cardiologist Robert C. Atkins . There have been many reinvented versions of low carb-focused programs, from the Zone diet to the newly popular Keto craze, and while there are benefits such as weight loss and balanced blood sugar levels, alarming new research gives us more of a reason to avoid refined carbs .
According to Insider, refined, carbohydrates like cereals, cookies, and white bread can be damaging to more than just your waistline. Recent research published in the BMJ suggests that these refined carbs can increase your risk of heart disease, too. The study out of St. John’s Research Institute in India, published in February 2021, evaluated the eating habits, lifestyles, and demographics of 137,000 participants worldwide. Upon a follow up nearly ten years later, researchers found that those who ate refined carbs such as white bread daily, were at a 33 percent higher risk of having a heart attack or stroke and a 27 percent higher risk of dying during the study than those who ate a minimal amount of refined carbs .
Refined Carbs Have Their Occasional Perks
Although the bad ultimately outweighs the good, refined carbohydrates do provide quick energy in a pinch.”Quickly digested energy before a workout is important in order to prevent cramping that can come from eating fiber right before a workout,” says Minchen, who recommends something like fresh fruit juice or white bread for these circumstances. “Additionally, eating something quickly digested right after a workout can boost muscle recovery and buffer the protein you consume to help maximize its muscle-building effect.”
Just make sure you avoid any added sugars wherever possible. If you are going to have refined carbohydrates, it’s best to find the ones enriched with added vitamins and minerals, advises Blatner. “But it’s always best to choose whole grains,” she says.
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Refined Grains Are Much Lower In Fiber And Micronutrients
Whole grains are very high in dietary fiber (
The bran and germ are the most nutritious parts of whole grains.
They contain high amounts of many nutrients, such as fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and selenium.
During the refining process, the bran and germ are removed, along with all the nutrients they contain .
This leaves almost no fiber, vitamins or minerals in the refined grains. The only thing left is rapidly digested starch with small amounts of protein.
That being said, some producers enrich their products with synthetic vitamins to make up for some of the loss in nutrients.
Whether or not synthetic vitamins are as good as natural vitamins has long been debated. However, most people will agree that getting your nutrients from whole foods is always the best choice .
Diets high in refined carbs also tend to be low in fiber. Low-fiber diets have been linked with an increased risk of diseases like heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and various digestive problems (
One study in Chinese adults showed that over 85% of the total carbohydrate intake came from refined carbs, mainly white rice and refined wheat products .