What are refined carbs anyway?
When people hear the term carbs they often think of items like potatoes, rice, pasta or pastries, but the reality is that ‘carbs’ include a whole lot more than all of that delicious starchy stuff. In fact, the carbohydrate category includes everything from fruit and vegetables, to beans and lentils, to pasta and pastries. Although ‘carbs’ are often demonized, not all carbs are created equal, and rather it is the type of carb, namely refined carbs, that people should be concerned about. So instead of freaking out over any type of carb that lands on your plate, let’s take a look at refined carbs and why they are the ones that we need to be more mindful of.
What are refined carbs?
The term refined carbs referrers to carbohydrate-based foods that are no longer present in their natural form. Although they may have been harvested in the fields, the way they have been processed is very far removed from their original format. The term refined carbs specifically refer to grain-based products and/or sources of processed sugar.
Whole grains in their whole format are considered whole foods. However, in this format, whole grains can be difficult to eat and digest, therefore food manufacturers will process the grains to make them more highly palatable. In order to do so, whole grains, which contain a bran, endosperm and germ, are milled and processed to remove the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. It is this specific process that strips the original whole grain of its fibre, vitamins and minerals, and the remaining portion is known as a refined grain, therefore a refined carb.
In addition to grains, other forms of carbohydrates, such as fruit, can also be processed from their original state into refined carbs. For instance, a piece of fresh fruit, such as an apple, contains fibre and nutrients which help to balance out its natural sugar content, while a processed apple, for instance apple juice, no longer has fibre, is often devoid of its own nutrients, and therefore merely a source of liquid sugar remains.
Essentially, refined carbohydrates are sources of starch or sugar that do not exist in mother nature. So any form of carbohydrate that is no longer in its whole food format is considered a refined carb.
Sources of Refined Carbs
Most processed foods are considered sources of refined carbohydrates, some of the most common include:
- Granola Bars
In addition to grain-based products, other sources of refined carbohydrates include:
- Fruit Juices
- Chocolate Milk
- Ice Cream
- White sugar
- Brown sugar
- And pretty much any other food with added sugar.
The Problem with Refined Carbs
The major concern with refined carbohydrates is that since most of the nutrients and natural fiber have been removed they act more like sugar in the body and a source of ’empty’ calories.
Since refined carbs are void of any fibre, they are very quickly absorbed into the bloodstream which can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar and high insulin levels after meals. The high glycemic load on refined carbs help to provide a feeling of fullness, but only for the short-term, often lasting just an hour or so. Not only are these foods devoid of their own nutrients, but their lack of effect on satiety often creates a need for over-consumption and excess. Plus, these types of foods are hyper-palatable and very easy to overeat because they do not provide true satiety in the diet.
Sadly, refined carbs make up a very large part of total carbohydrate intake for many people. For instance, the standard North American diet looks something like; cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, granola bar for snack and pasta for dinner, which is essentially a diet made up solely of refined carbs. A high intake of refined carbs has been associated with a higher risk of developing a variety of diseases and disorders including obesity, stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and digestive issues.
This is not to say that all forms of carbohydrates are bad for you, in fact, quite the opposite; whole food carbohydrates are incredibly nutrient dense and provide better satiety. The more you can focus on whole food based sources of carbohydrates such as vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils and whole grains the better off you will be. Grains can still be consumed as a part of a healthy diet, but it is important to understand that it is better to focus on whole grains in their whole format than products made out for them. For example, you are better off eating actual rice, oatmeal and quinoa, over rice cakes, oatmeal cookies and quinoa crackers. The more you can focus on eating whole grains the more you ensure that they contain the essential fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Although refined carbs often seem more convenient foods to eat, I assure you real food is too. Opting for carrots over crackers, trail mix over a granola bar and fruit over cookies are simple whole food swaps that you can do on a day-to-day basis to help reduce your overall intake of refined carbohydrates.
The Bottom Line
As always, the most important thing to focus on in a healthy diet is whole foods, and refined carbs do not fall into that category. I am by no means suggesting that you can never eat pretzels or crackers again, but rather it is important that you pay attention to the frequency and volume at which you consume them. Do your best to focus on whole food carbohydrates like vegetables, fruits, beans, lentils and whole grains as much as possible, and leave the refined carbs for special occasions.