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In the world of nutrition, some foods are labeled as “good” while others are classified as “bad,” whether they deserve it or not. Take carbs for example. Options like whole grains and fruit are notoriously found in good-for-you recipes and healthy snack choices. Yet the term “refined carbs” is often eschewed and placed on the “never-eat” list.
But are all refined carbs created equal, or are some better choices than others? Or better yet, do certain refined carbs actually offer some nutritional benefits when included in an overall healthy diet?
What Are Refined Carbs?
First, let’s start with what a refined carb actually is. A carbohydrate, or a carb, is a macronutrient found in food or drink that ultimately fuels the body with energy. There are a variety of carbs, and different ones may act slightly differently in the body.
When you’re eating carb sources like cereal, oats, bread and rice, you’re eating grains. These foods come from natural grain sources like wheat, barley and rye, and they may be processed to make the food that you know and love.
The grains that you’re enjoying may be in the whole form or in the refined form, depending on what happens to the said grain after it is harvested.
Whole grains like brown rice, whole-wheat flour and old-fashioned oats contain the entire grain kernel — which includes the bran, germ and endosperm — giving the food a boost of fiber and some vitamins and minerals. Refined grains, on the other hand, are produced by removing the bran and the germ of the grain, leaving the endosperm. This process can reduce the fiber, iron and vitamin B content of the grain, and therefore is thought to be an inferior choice to the whole-grain counterpart. Refined grains include any food in which the grain was refined — like white pasta, instant oats, white rice and white crackers.
Along with refined grains being considered a refined carb, other foods can fall under this classification, including sweet treats like cakes, cookies, pastries and candy. These refined carbs are also known as refined sugars or refined sweets.
So the classification of refined carbs includes both refined grains and refined sugars — two refined food sources that can act very differently in the body.
Are Refined Carbs Bad for Your Health?
It has been drilled into our heads that whole-grain carbs are the way to go when it comes to our carb choices. After all, eating whole grains is linked to a better feeling of satiety and possibly a reduced risk of developing obesity when compared with refined carbs.
But when figuring out whether refined grains have a place on your plate, you need to dig a bit deeper before you can decide, ultimately determining whether the food is a refined sugar or a refined grain.
Eating too many refined sugars is linked to some unsavory side effects when consumed in excess, and by eating these foods, you are eating items that do not fuel your body with significant nutrients.
Refined grains, on the other hand, include white bread, white rice, traditional pasta and waffles. These foods are made from grains, but the grains used do not contain the germ and the bran because of the refining process. Some brands can have added fats, sugars and preservatives, as well, depending on the item.
Eating refined carbs should not be considered “one in the same” with eating refined sugar (like a bag of gummy bears). Yes, neither one is a whole grain and both may be missing some nutrients like fiber, but certain refined grains do offer some nutritional benefits that can’t be ignored that extend beyond simply providing carbs.
In fact, data shows that removing certain refined fortified and enriched grains from a diet can contribute to deficiency of nutrients like iron, folate and thiamin. Plus, eating certain varieties may even help reduce bodyweight, according to some data.
And when focusing on refined grain intake, it appears that eating certain better-for-you varieties of this type of food does not appear to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and even certain cancers, unlike the effects that eating refined sugars can have.
How to Include Refined Grains in a Healthy Diet
If you are a pasta lover or enjoy rice with your dishes, know that it is entirely possible to include some of your favorite refined grains as part of an overall healthy diet.
Choosing refined grains that have a lower glycemic index (GI), or a food with a lower potential to raise blood sugar versus pure glucose, can help improve blood sugar regulation and reduce cholesterol levels. Plus, avoiding high GI foods, and thus avoiding blood sugar spikes, can help manage hunger and weight goals.
Foods like pancakes and waffles can be heavily processed and can be made with unhealthy oils, sugars and other ingredients that are not great for our overall health. As such, when choosing convenience foods, examining the entire ingredient list is essential to making good food choices.
Refined grains that have a high glycemic index include puffed rice cakes, cornflakes and white bread, and eating them may raise blood sugar levels quite rapidly. Alternatively, choosing options that have a low GI, including rice noodles, long-grain rice, easy-cook long-grain rice, white basmati rice and white boiled pasta can be good-for-you options. And since many of these lower GI refined grains are fortified with important nutrients like iron and B vitamins, including them in an overall healthy diet doesn’t have to come with a serving of guilt.
Overall, opting for lower GI refined grains, limiting refined sugars, eating proper portion sizes and pairing your refined grains with other nutrient-dense food choices — like produce, beans, legumes and lean meats — are all healthy dietary choices.