Pasta, donuts, cake, pastries and pizza are some of the most beloved foods worldwide. They're widely available, have a low price tag and taste amazing. After all, who could say no to a warm slice of pizza after a long day? Unfortunately, these goodies are loaded with refined sugar, trans fats and potentially harmful chemicals that may harm your health in the long run.
What Are Refined Carbohydrates?
Ever wonder why nutritionists recommend choosing whole grain bread over white bread or brown rice over rice? The reason is that white bread, white rice, white pasta, sugar and other "white" foods are high in refined carbohydrates. These compounds have been linked to diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance and inflammatory disorders.
According to a 2014 research article published in the journal Mediators of Inflammation, refined carbs trigger low-grade inflammation, which in turn, may contribute to insulin resistance and obesity. Another study, which was featured in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2015, has linked refined sugars to mood swings, fatigue and depression. While it's true that eating one cookie or a piece of chocolate is unlikely to cause any harm, these foods can affect your health when consumed in excess.
Refined carbs have a high glycemic index and little or no nutritional value, leading to blood sugar spikes followed by crashes. Breakfast cereals, for example, have been stripped of almost all fiber, so the sugar is quickly absorbed into your bloodstream. Over time, blood sugar fluctuations may put you at risk for diabetes and metabolic problems. Whole grains, by contrast, are high in fiber and protect against heart disease, diabetes, cancer and mortality from all causes, according to a 2016 review featured in The BMJ journal.
Good Carbs Versus Bad Carbs
Not all carbs are created equal. Whole, minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains contain both simple and complex carbs. These nutrients are your body's primary source of fuel.
The difference between the two is that simple carbs, such as white bread and ice cream, enter the bloodstream faster because they've had their fiber removed. Complex carbohydrates, such as oats, leafy greens and quinoa, are slowly absorbed into your system and provide steady energy. The fiber in these foods helps prevent blood sugar spikes, fills you up quickly and promotes digestive health.
Read more: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs
As the American Heart Association points out, refined sugars also raise triglyceride levels and may increase your risk of fatty liver disease, cardiovascular problems and Type 2 diabetes. Fruit juice, for example, lacks dietary fiber. This means that when you drink a glass of juice, your body absorbs the sugar within minutes. Whole fruits, on the other hand, are rich in fiber, so the sugar is gradually absorbed into your bloodstream.
Examples of Refined Carbohydrates
Refined white bread, breakfast cereals, bagels, cakes, white rice, waffles and noodles are all loaded with simple carbs. The same goes for many so-called healthy foods, such as flavored yogurt, granola bars, store-bought smoothies, baked potato chips and sports drinks. Food manufacturers often use terms like multigrain or enriched wheat flour to market their products; however, this doesn't mean they're healthier or more nutritious.
The term multigrain, for instance, doesn't tell whether a product contains refined grains or whole grains. It simply indicates that the flour in bread, crackers and other foods contains more than one type of grain. Enriched flour is fortified with vitamins and minerals, but this doesn't mean it's made from whole grains.
The best way to tell what's in your food is to check the labels. Refined white bread, for example, provides 12.7 grams of carbs, including 1.1 grams of sugar and 0.6 gram of fiber per slice. Since it's so low in fiber, it elevates blood sugar levels and triggers insulin spikes. In fact, white bread has the highest glycemic index of all foods.
What's Wrong With White Rice?
Just like refined cereals, white rice is high in simple carbs and contains little fiber. From a nutritional perspective, it can't match brown, black, red or wild rice. According to a 2018 review published in the International Journal of Endocrinology and Metabolism, unprocessed foods like whole grains and nuts protect against metabolic syndrome, abdominal obesity and high blood pressure. White rice, sugary treats and salty snacks have the opposite effect.
One cup of cooked white rice delivers 205 calories, 44.5 grams of carbs, 0.6 gram of fiber and 4.2 grams of protein. The same amount of cooked brown rice has 216 calories, 44.8 grams of carbs, 3.5 grams of fiber and 5 grams of protein. It's also higher in B-complex vitamins, magnesium, selenium and copper.
Even though brown rice contains a few more calories and carbs, it has nearly six times more fiber than white rice. Another healthy alternative is wild rice, which has only 166 calories and 35 grams of carbs per cup. It also delivers 6.5 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber, making it ideal for dieters. Both protein and fiber increase satiety and aid in weight loss.
The Dangers of Sugary Treats
Some foods, such as breakfast cereals, cookies, pastries, frozen yogurt, energy bars and gummy bears, are chock-full of sugar. As the Environmental Working Group notes, cereals marketed to children are the highest in refined sugar despite being advertised as healthy. A single serving provides more than a third of the maximum recommended daily sugar intake for children.
Energy bars are no better. Some actually contain more sugar than a Snickers candy bar. If you check the labels, you'll be surprised to find out that many brands have up to 26 grams of sugar and 46 grams of carbs. Not to mention the artificial flavors, hydrogenated fats and preservatives added to these goodies.
According to a 2018 review published in Clinical Nutrition Research, high-fat and high-sugar diets contribute to hyperglycemia, which is a major risk factor for diabetes, cognitive impairment and dementia. Regular consumption of sugary foods has been also shown to increase the risk of cardiac defects, nerve and blood vessel damage, mental disorders and insulin resistance.
What About Chips and Fries?
Sugary foods are not the only sources of refined carbohydrates. Potato chips, French fries, pizza, crackers, BBQ sauce and salad dressings fall under this category too. These products are highly processed and have little nutritional value.
One serving (28 grams) of salted potato chips, for example, has 153 calories, 13.9 grams of carbs, 10.5 grams of fat and 1.2 grams of fiber. Let's face it — we eat a lot more than 28 grams of chips in one sitting, so the carbs and calories add up. These snacks often come in oversized bags, so it's hard to stop after a few bites. Those flavored with cheese, paprika, sour cream and other ingredients are even higher in refined carbs.
Your body needs carbohydrates to function optimally; the key is choosing the right ones. Ideally, your daily carbs should come from whole and minimally processed foods. Consider making your own energy bars, granola, pancakes and desserts to have full control over the ingredients used. Replace all-purpose flour with whole-grain flour or almond flour, swap sugar for stevia and use raw cocoa or extra dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate when baking cookies and other treats.
- Hindawi: Mediators of Inflammation: Excessive Refined Carbohydrates and Scarce Micronutrients Intakes Increase Inflammatory Mediators and Insulin Resistance in Prepubertal and Pubertal Obese Children Independently of Obesity
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: High glycemic index diet as a risk factor for depression
- Diabetes.org: Glycemic Index and Diabetes
- BMJ: Whole Grain Consumption and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease, Cancer, and All Cause and Cause Specific Mortality
- Mayo Clinic: Dietary Fiber: Essential for a Healthy Diet
- Heart.org: Carbohydrates
- Collins Dictionary: Multigrain
- Intermountain Healthcare: Whole Grain: Refined, Enriched... What's the Difference?
- SELF Nutrition Data: Commercially Prepared White Bread
- Harvard Health Publishing: Glycemic Index for 60+ Foods
- Endometabol: Nutrition and Cardio-Metabolic Risk Factors: Findings From 20 Years of the Tehran Lipid and Glucose Study
- SELF Nutrition Data: Cooked White Rice
- SELF Nutrition Data: Cooked Brown Rice
- SELF Nutrition Data: Cooked Wild Rice
- NCBI: Effects of Dietary Fibre (Pectin) and/or Increased Protein (Casein or Pea) on Satiety, Body Weight, Adiposity and Caecal Fermentation in High Fat Diet-Induced Obese Rats
- EWG.org: Children's Cereals
- AJC: These 23 'Healthy' Energy Bars Actually Have More Sugar Than a Snickers
- CNR.org: Diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease
- SELF Nutrition Data: Salted Potato Chips
- Heart.org: Sugar 101
- Harvard School of Public Health: Hearty Whole Grain Bread
- Choose My Plate: Refined Grains Gallery
- MDPI: Fat, Sugar, Whole Grains and Heart Disease: 50 Years of Confusion