Refined Carbohydrates: What They Are, Why They Are So Unhealthy, and How To Eat Less of Them

In recent years there has been a lot of talk about how bad carbohydrates are for you. Low-carb diets (such as the South Beach, Atkins, or paleo diet) or even no-carb diets have become popular. However, it isn’t so much carbohydrates themselves that are bad for you, it’s specifically refined carbohydrates.

Refined carbohydrates are those made from grain which has had the bran and wheat germ stripped from it. Unfortunately, the bran and wheat germ takes with them most of what makes grain healthy. Once refined, the grain is no longer whole, and no longer has many nutrients. The large amounts of fiber once present are lost, as well most minerals and vitamins.

Sadly, refined carbohydrates play a huge role in the typical modern diet in Western countries. The biggest culprit might be white bread, which is hugely popular in sandwiches and on its own. Chips are another big problem, as are many sweets, including cookies, donuts, and cake. Other popular refined carbohydrates include pasta and white rice.

But how exactly are refined carbs bad for you? Unfortunately, in a variety of ways. The refining process means the loss of the fiber, minerals, and vitamins that made the grain nutritious. Practically all that’s left is starch, which is digested very quickly.

This rapid digestion leads to a spike in insulin and blood sugar levels. This contributes to fat storage and weight gain. Worse, over time these spikes lead to insulin insensitivity, which can culminate in diabetes. High blood sugar and insulin resistance can lead to heart disease as well.

Refined carbs aren’t even a good source of energy. When blood sugar levels collapse after initially spiking, hunger returns. Instead of long-lasting satiation, a person is likely to eat again just a few hours after consuming refined carbs. This obviously encourages overeating. Refined carbs have also been linked to increased inflammation.

To sum up, refined carbs have virtually no benefit, but plenty of downside. Consuming a lot of refined carbs generally results in a high-carb, low-fiber diet, which is terrible for health. Getting too little fiber can lead to digestion problems and increases risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

You don’t have to buy into the theory that all carbs are bad to benefit from an understanding of the truth that refined carbs are certainly unhealthy. Nor do you have to cut out refined carbs entirely. That would probably be asking too much from yourself. Instead of achieving your goal, you would be more likely to make no improvement at all. A more reasonable approach is simply to cut down on consumption of refined carbs.

Luckily, reducing the amount of refined carbs you eat is eminently doable. With some foods, replacing an unhealthy refined carb version with a more nutritious alternative is the best approach. For example, replace white bread with whole-wheat bread. Do the same with pasta, crackers, and cereal, all of which can be made with whole grains. With other foods, the better strategy is to heavily reduce how much you consume. Cookies, cake, and the like would fall under this category — most sweets can’t really be made without refined carbs, so there is no healthy version.

Bottom line: refined carbohydrates are not at all good for you. Any amount you can reduce your consumption of refined carbs will be beneficial. Doing so will be a challenge due to how firmly refined carbs have become ensconced in the typical modern diet, but will be well worth effort.