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 and rice, and 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: when refined into white flour, the starch in the middle remains, but the process strips away the bran on the outside (a source of fiber and vitamins), as well as the germ which contains vitamins, minerals, and traces of good fat.

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

The Good Carbs: Why Choose Unrefined Carbohydrates?

The good carbs, which supply many of the nutrients your body needs to function properly, are those in an unrefined and natural state, with nothing removed. Sources of these healthy carbs include whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, which are all excellent sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients.

To incorporate unrefined carbs to 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, pastas and brown rice to your diet, you may need to adjust to slightly different tastes and textures. But it’s well worth: in addition to providing more nutrients, these foods are generally more filling than their refined counterparts because of the extra fiber.

Consider trying these delicious breakfast muffins packed with lean protein and healthy carbs, which go well with a side of fruit:

Which Carbs Should You Avoid?

To maintain a healthy diet, reduce your intake of refined carbs and consider healthier alternatives to the ones below:

Breads

When looking for healthy bread options, try to avoid white breads 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% whole wheat on the front, and 100% 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 breads, when shopping for a 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, therefore also 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 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.