Are All Carbs Bad? Refined vs Unrefined Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in recent years, mainly because people associate carbs with foods like white bread, pasta, and rice, in addition to sweetened yogurts and juices. In reality, not all carbs are bad — however, when a carb is refined, many important, beneficial nutrients can be stripped away.

Take whole grain wheat, for example. When refined into white flour, the starch in the middle remains, but the process strips away the bran and the germ. The bran is a good source of fiber and vitamins, while the germ contains vitamins, minerals, and traces of good fat.

This is why it’s important to understand the difference between refined and unrefined carbs.

What Are Good Carbs? Choose Unrefined Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates help our bodies function properly by serving as the primary fuel for our brains and red blood cells. The healthiest carbs are those found in an unrefined and natural state, with nothing removed. Think “whole” and “unprocessed.”

Sources of these good carbs include whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables, which are all excellent sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. People who follow very low-carb diets, such as a keto diet, risk not getting enough of these nutrients.

How to Get More of the Good Carbs

To incorporate unrefined carbs into your diet, look for foods in their natural state. If you’re preparing any fruits, vegetables, or even potatoes for a meal, preserve the skin whenever possible.

As you introduce whole-grain flours, pasta, and brown rice to your diet, you may need to adjust to slightly different tastes and textures. But it’s well worth it: in addition to providing more nutrients, these foods are generally more filling than their refined counterparts because of the extra fiber.

Make small changes to your diet, starting with breakfast. Consider trying these delicious breakfast egg muffin cups packed with lean protein and healthy carbs, which go well with a side of fruit:

How to Cut Back on Processed Carbs

To maintain a healthy diet, aim to reduce your intake of refined and processed carbs:

Bread

When looking for healthy bread options, try to avoid white bread and pay close attention to the wheat bread options in front of you. Many manufacturers label their bread as “multigrain,” but you need to look at the ingredient list to determine if the grains are indeed whole grain and not refined. With whole wheat bread, look for 100 percent whole wheat on the front and 100 percent whole wheat flour in ingredients. The word “whole” is key – if it just says wheat flour, for example, it is likely refined.

Flours, Pasta and Rice

Like bread, when shopping for flour, pasta, or rice, it’s best to search for whole-grain products like whole-wheat flour, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice. Otherwise, the refined products will have had the bran and germ removed, removing nutrients such as iron, folate, and B vitamins.

Fruit Juices

With fruit juices or fruit sauces, the skins are taken off, removing a lot of the natural fiber and phytonutrients. Always go for the whole fruit versus juice or unsweetened applesauce if you want to maximize the health benefit. In addition, fruit juice is much less filling than whole fruits, but packs a lot more calories per serving.

Getting the Most from Your Carbs

Here are a few tricks to start making the transition from refined to unrefined carbs:

Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND –Sr.Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan BowermanM.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

Susan Bowerman earned a B.S. in biology with distinction from the University of Colorado, and received her M.S. in food science and nutrition from Colorado State University. She is a registered dietitian, holds two board certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a certified specialist in sports dietetics, and a certified specialist in obesity and weight management, and is a Fellow of the Academy.