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Don’t Eat Refined Carbohydrates

February 26, 2016 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

By now, you should be pretty familiar with the healthy eating plate.

That’s the general amount of each food you should eat. For instance, in a typical meal, half your plate should be made up of vegetables and fruits.

The other half should be divvied up between lean proteins and healthy, whole grains.

But why is that the correct ratio for most of us? And why is there no place for refined grains?

It all comes down to nutritional balance. And today, we’re going to be talking about the importance—and danger—of refined carbohydrates.

What is a carb?

You probably remember that carbohydrates are the energy source for your body.

Protein gets broken down into amino acids and goes toward repair work—of muscles, of ligaments, of all the things you think of when you think of the solid body.

Fat has a few different important roles. The most obvious is as a store of energy. We turn fat into our own personal battery packs.

However, fatty acids help in a variety of processes, the inner workings of the brain, among them.

Carbs, however, are the immediate fuel you burn through to do everything throughout your day. If fat is a battery, carbs are gasoline.

We need that gas to run. Many nutritionists recommend that somewhere between 40% and 60% of your calories every day come from carbs.

However, not all carbohydrates are the same.

The type of carbohydrates we want the most of are complex carbohydrates. They are called complex because they have long sugar molecules—they are, chemically, much more complex.

That means it takes them longer to break down—which is a good thing. Complex carbohydrates are in whole grains, beans, fruit, and vegetables. They’re often found with fiber, which also slows digestion.

The energy stored up in complex carbohydrates enters the body in a drip-drip fashion, like an IV.

Simple carbohydrates, on the other hand, are very easy for the body to break down.

When you eat simple carbohydrates separate from fiber, your blood sugar spikes like mad.

If you think of complex carbohydrates as an IV drip, then simple carbs without fiber are like aiming a firehose full of sugar at your mouth.

Finally, refined carbohydrates are another form of simple carbs.

The important thing in this case is that the refining process has stripped out many of the nutrients, and has taken away the regulator of fiber—for example white flours and refined sugar.

The fiber is what makes brown rice brown, and gives whole wheat bread its tinge.

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Strip that away, and both simple and complex carbohydrates hit your blood stream much faster, in the form of sugar.

Why refined carbs can kill you

Getting your carbs from vegetables and fruits is great.

After all, both come loaded with different types of nutrients and fiber. And the nutrients you get from fruits and vegetables are essential for a well-running machine.

To a lesser extent, the same can be said about healthy whole grains. By that, I mean things like whole wheat bread, quinoa, and brown rice. Each provide a number of nutrients and are full of fiber.

The problem is usually that we eat too much of them. But as long as you keep the whole grains to a small portion of your plate—about a third or so—then you should be fine.

The real problem comes when you eat too many refined carbs.

That means white breads, pasta, refined sugars like high fructose corn syrup, or even the cubes you put in your coffee.

There are two huge problems with refined carbs. First, the refining process strips out most of the nutrients. So you aren’t feeding yourself a balanced meal—you’re eating empty calories.

A slice of white bread is a lot closer to drinking a beer—also full of empty carbs—than it is to a slice of 100% whole wheat.

And second, refined carbs have most of their fiber stripped away.

Not only is that lack of fiber bad for you—many of your systems rely on fiber to function—but low fiber also means those carbs quickly get converted into sugar, spiking your blood sugar levels.

As I’ve mentioned more than once, spiking blood sugar levels is awful for you. It leads to insulin resistance, increased fat storage, and increased hunger swings. Nothing good comes from spikes in blood sugar.

That’s why refined carbs are foods to be avoided at all costs. Luckily, there is almost always an unrefined option.

For breads, only eat 100% whole wheat—and that doesn’t include multigrain, which is often simply many types of refined grains.

Make sure the label says “100%” as well—because simply having some whole wheat allows companies to slap “whole wheat” on the label, even if there is a ton of refined flour. So look for “100%” as well—or check the ingredients, and avoid anything that contains a “refined” or “white” flour or grain.

I would recommend avoiding pasta whenever possible. Even if it’s made from brown rice, it’s still been pulverized and refined into a product that barely resembles the original grain. The fiber is largely missing and all you get is the simple carb.

For vegetables, try to avoid the starchiest. White potatoes have much higher simple carb levels. Sweet potatoes are better, and leafy greens are better still.

In short, if a food has been processed—it comes in a box, a bag, or a can—assume it has also been stripped of much of its nutritional value. Choose whole foods instead.

Even with healthy whole grains, you still should mind your portion sizes. But at least you’ll be getting the benefit of all the nutrients and fiber that whole foods have.

That’s why whole grains deserve a place on a healthy plate—and refined grains should be shown the door.


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