Refined carbohydrates have become an unfortunate staple in the American diet. They are present in baked goods, pasta dishes, breakfast cereals and soft drinks — enough so kids and adults typically consume too many refined carbs daily.
People who eat too many refined carbs are up to three times more likely to get heart disease and more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and obesity.
The good news is that there are plenty of complex carbohydrate options that are not only more nutritious, but filling and energizing.
What Are Refined Carbs?
Refined carbohydrates are carbs that have undergone processing to remove their natural fiber, vitamins and minerals. This processing often results in simpler, less nutrient-dense food products with higher calorie content and lower nutritional value.
Simple carbs, which include white bread, pastas and baked goods, are more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing a rapid increase in blood sugar levels, followed by a drop. This can lead to increased hunger and cravings and may contribute to weight gain, food cravings and various health issues over time.
Consuming whole, unprocessed carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, is generally recommended over refined carbs, as these foods contain more nutrients, fiber and have a lower glycemic index, providing longer-lasting energy and promoting better overall health.
Effects on Health
The consumption of refined carbs can have several negative effects on health, as they often lack essential nutrients and can contribute to rapid fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Some of the potential health effects of consuming refined carbs include:
1. Weight Gain
Simple carbohydrates are often high in calories and low in nutrients, which can lead to overeating and weight gain. Their rapid absorption can also cause increased hunger and cravings, further promoting weight gain.
Research shows that a diet high in refined carbohydrates is associated with obesity, increased hunger and high cholesterol levels.
2. Type 2 Diabetes
Studies indicate that high refined carb consumption is associated with the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.
Frequent consumption of refined carbs can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, which can strain the pancreas and insulin production over time. This may increase the risk of developing insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
3. Heart Disease
There’s a great deal of evidence linking high-carbohydrate diets with coronary heart disease. Diets high in refined carbs have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, as they can contribute to weight gain, inflammation, and elevated blood sugar, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels.
One study found that an extra one to two servings of refined carbs per day can increase the risk of heart disease by 10 percent to 20 percent.
4. Metabolic Syndrome
Consuming simple carbs may increase the risk of developing metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that includes high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels, which together increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
A 2022 report published in Nutrients found that “an uncontrolled intake of refined carbohydrates puts individuals at risk of developing metabolic syndrome and subsequently developing metabolic disease.”
5. Nutrient Deficiencies
Refined carbohydrates lack the vitamins, minerals and fiber found in whole, unprocessed carbohydrates. A diet high in refined carbs can lead to nutrient deficiencies and associated health problems.
Research suggests that excessive refined carb intake paired with a diet low in micronutrients can lead to inflammation and insulin resistance.
6. Energy Fluctuations
Refined carbs can cause rapid fluctuations in blood sugar and energy levels, leading to fatigue, irritability and difficulty concentrating.
7. Gut health
A diet high in refined carbs and low in fiber can negatively impact gut health, potentially leading to digestive issues, such as constipation, bloating and an imbalance of gut bacteria.
Refined Carbs vs. Complex Carbs
Refined carbs and complex carbs are two categories of carbohydrates that differ in their nutritional composition, processing and effects on the body. Here’s a breakdown of the key differences between refined carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates:
- Processing: Refined carbs are carbohydrates that have undergone processing, which removes their natural fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Nutrient composition: Due to processing, refined carbs are often lower in essential nutrients and fiber compared to complex carbs.
- Glycemic index: Refined carbs typically have a high glycemic index, meaning they are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, causing quick spikes in blood sugar levels.
- Health effects: Frequent consumption of refined carbs can contribute to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, low energy and poor gut health.
- Examples: White bread, white rice, white pasta, pastries made with white flour, sugary cereals, soda and candy.
- Processing: Complex carbs are minimally processed or unprocessed carbohydrates, retaining their natural fiber, vitamins and minerals.
- Nutrient composition: Complex carbohydrates are generally nutrient-dense, providing essential vitamins, minerals and fiber that promote better overall health.
- Glycemic index: They usually have a lower glycemic index, so they are absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream, resulting in a gradual and sustained release of energy.
- Health effects: Consuming complex carbs can help regulate blood sugar levels, support weight management and reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
- Examples: Whole grains (such as brown rice, quinoa and whole wheat bread), fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts.
Refined Carb Foods to Avoid
Refined carb foods with a high glycemic index include the following:
- White bread
- White rice
- White pasta
- Pastries and baked goods, such as cakes, cookies and doughnuts
- Sugary breakfast cereals
- Soda and sugar-sweetened beverages
- Candy and sweets
- Snack foods, including chips, crackers and pretzels
- Instant noodles
- Processed and packaged foods: Many processed foods, such as frozen meals and canned soups, can contain refined carbs and added sugars.
The healthiest carbohydrates to eat are those that are unprocessed or minimally processed, nutrient-dense and high in fiber. These carbs provide essential nutrients, have a lower glycemic index and promote better overall health.
Some of the healthiest carbohydrate sources include:
- Whole grains: Brown rice, quinoa, barley, oats, farro, millet, buckwheat, teff, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta
- Fruits: Apples, berries, oranges, bananas, cherries, kiwi, melon and more
- Vegetables: Both starchy (sweet potatoes, squash and peas) and non-starchy vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli and bell peppers)
- Legumes: Beans, lentils and chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, pecans, hemp seeds, chia seeds and flaxseeds
- Whole grain cereals: Steel-cut oats, muesli or bran flakes
- Tubers: Yams, turnips and beets
Incorporating these healthy carbohydrate sources into your diet can provide sustained energy, support weight management and promote better overall health.
- Refined carbohydrates are carbs that have undergone processing to remove their natural fiber, vitamins and minerals. This processing often results in simpler, less nutrient-dense food products with higher calorie content and lower nutritional value.
- Refined carbohydrates to avoid include white bread, white pasta, white rice, sodas and sugary drinks, baked goods made with white flour, and sugary cereals and candies.
- Instead of eating refined carbs, choose complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and tubers.
- Remember to consume carbohydrates, even those that are complex, in moderation, and balance them with lean proteins, healthy fats, and plenty of fruits and vegetables for a well-rounded diet.