What Are Refined Carbs and Are They Bad for You? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say (2023)

Carbohydrates are the body's preferred energy source, providing essential fiber and other nutrients, such as B vitamins, iron and antioxidants. Refined carbohydrates are grains that have been processed or milled by removing one or more parts of the kernel; they are not whole grains. Processing extends shelf life and yields a softer, chewier texture; it also removes nutrients like B vitamins, fats and fiber, some of which can be added back in if a grain is enriched. White bread, white flour, white pasta and white rice are examples of refined carbohydrates.

Labeling foods as "good" and "bad" is problematic; it can perpetuate negative feelings about oneself or about food and, in specific populations, result in restrictive eating. Refined carbohydrates are not bad for you but can contain fewer micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and less fiber than whole grains. And for people with certain health conditions, like diabetes, eating refined grains in isolation (without adding fiber, fat and protein) can cause blood sugars to rise.

Learn more about refined carbohydrates, the process in which they are made, and possible food alternatives to consider.

What Are Refined Carbohydrates?

Refined carbohydrates are processed grains. According to the Whole Grains Council, "refined grain" is the term used to refer to grains that are not whole; they are missing one or more of their three key parts (bran, germ or endosperm).

Refined carbohydrates are complex carbohydrates, meaning they contain long strands of sugar molecules which categorize them as starches. Structurally they are not the same as "simple carbohydrates," a term used to define carbohydrates that contain one or two glucose molecules. Simple carbohydrates are mono- (one) or di- (two) saccharides. Monosaccharides and disaccharides make up the sugars in foods such as table sugar, juice, fruit and milk. Not all are created equal; some are more nutrient-dense than others.

Here are some common refined-carbohydrate foods:

  • White flour
  • White bread like Italian bread, bagels, rolls, buns, wraps, English muffins
  • Pastries, cookies, cakes, muffins
  • Certain cereals
  • Breakfast foods like waffles and pancakes
  • White-flour crackers and pretzels
  • Pizza dough
  • White rice

You can purchase whole-grain varieties of many foods; always check the labels. According to the American Heart Association, a product is considered a whole grain if the first ingredient reads whole or whole grain. For example, 100% whole-wheat bagels are considered a whole-grain food, as are corn tortillas and whole-grain English muffins.

The Refining Process

A whole grain remains intact; it contains three parts: the bran, germ and endosperm. The bran, the outer skin of a grain kernel, contains fiber, antioxidants and B vitamins. In contrast, the germ is the embryo of the grain. It can potentially sprout a new grain and is where healthy fats, minerals, fiber and protein reside. Removing the bran and the germ is a process that yields products like white bread and white rice.

Refined grains are usually enriched with B vitamins and iron that are lost during processing. But fiber and other minerals found in whole grains, like vitamin E, potassium and magnesium are not usually added back in. However, this isn't always the case. Some refined grains, like cereal, can be fortified with additional vitamins and minerals. That's why it is also important to read labels to know what nutrients you are getting.

Preservatives and other ingredients may be added to refined grains to enhance visual and taste appeal as well as increase shelf life by preventing mold and staleness.

Refined vs. Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates are the sugar structures found in grains, legumes and starchy vegetables like squash and potatoes. They are called oligosaccharides or polysaccharides. Refined carbohydrates are a type of complex carbohydrate. Like most foods, certain varieties are more nutrient-dense than others. For example, a slice of whole-grain bread contains more fiber than a slice of white bread.

Are Refined Carbs Bad for You?

Refined carbohydrates can serve a purpose in an eating plan. You may eat them because they help you enjoy eating or because they are a staple in your culture. Consuming refined carbohydrates as a quick fuel source or during athletic training cycles when you are competing can help prevent you from experiencing an upset stomach. However, if you only eat refined carbohydrates, you can miss out on critical nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. It's important to assess your overall eating pattern and how that impacts your health.

According to a 2021 review in Advances in Nutrition, a diet high in refined carbohydrates and other ultraprocessed foods can negatively impact your gut and heart health. Eating whole grains has been linked to a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, per a 2020 meta-analysis in PLOS Medicine.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends making half of your grain choices whole grains. This can help you reach your daily fiber needs. Fiber, the indigestible part of carbohydrates, provides many benefits, such as acting like a sponge to remove bad cholesterol (LDL) from the body, aiding in satiety, promoting regular bowel movements and much more.

Food Alternatives to Consider

Nowadays, there are so many whole-grain products on the market. Look for products that display the 100% whole grain stamp or read ingredient lists to check that the first ingredient is whole. If a product bears the 50% stamp, then at least half of its grain ingredients are whole grain. It may take time to get accustomed to new flavors and textures, but try making one change at a time.

Here are some excellent swaps.

White breadWhole-grain bread (whole-wheat or multigrain)
White flour tortillasCorn tortillas
White riceWild rice or brown rice
White pastaWhole-wheat pasta, whole-grain pasta or pasta made from legumes like chickpeas and lentils
Sugar-sweetened cerealsOatmeal or cereal varieties made with whole grains
Pretzels and white crackersPopcorn, whole-grain crackers or nut-and-seed crackers

Other delicious whole grains to try:

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Corn
  • Farro
  • Fonio
  • Freekeh
  • Kamut
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Quinoa
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you avoid refined carbs?

Unless you have a food allergy or must follow a gluten-free diet because you have celiac disease or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you don't have to avoid refined carbohydrates altogether. Complete avoidance for those who don't have a medical necessity may perpetuate disordered eating, particularly in those people who have a history.

On the other hand, if you want to reduce your intake due to other health or nutrition-related goals, you can opt to choose whole grains by reading labels and choosing items that have the word whole with the first ingredient. Aim to choose whole grains most of the time to increase your intake of fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

What is the healthiest carb?

The most nutrient-dense carbohydrates, like starchy vegetables, whole grains, fruit, dairy and legumes, may appear to be the healthiest due to their fiber and nutrient profile; however, you can find some health benefits in most forms of carbohydrates. Find foods that fit your health and nutrition goals that also allow you to maintain the pleasure of eating. This will allow you to create sustainable eating habits that are important for overall health.

Is oatmeal a refined carb?

Oatmeal is a whole grain; it is not considered a refined carbohydrate. However, it is still a processed grain. It must go through some form of processing before it hits the shelves. Most foods, even packaged vegetables, have been processed in some way.

Are potatoes refined carbs?

No, potatoes are a complex carbohydrate. They are considered starchy vegetables and are not a grain, so they are not considered refined carbohydrates.

What are white carbs?

"White carbs" is a term that people use interchangeably with refined carbohydrates. These items typically include things like white bread, white pasta, bagels, pretzels, etc.

Who should avoid refined carbs?

Refined carbohydrates, when eaten alone, can cause blood sugars to rise because they have a high glycemic index. This is can be problematic for people with diabetes who have difficulty with metabolizing sugar due to insulin deficiency, insulin resistance or a combination of both. When consuming refined carbohydrates, pair them with fat, fiber and protein to delay gastric emptying and how quickly your blood sugar rises.

People who have a history of other diseases like colon cancer and heart disease also benefit from limiting their intake of refined carbohydrates. These types of carbohydrates are low in fiber, which is important for heart and digestive health. Individualized meal plans can be created by a professional such as a registered dietitian to optimize your nutrient intake for your overall health.

The Bottom Line

Refined carbohydrates are processed by removing parts of the nutritious grain kernel to yield products that are softer in texture and can last longer on shelves. While they are not necessarily bad for you, these products do contain lower amounts of certain micronutrients and filling fiber. Some enriched refined products add back B vitamins and iron, but other minerals and fiber are not usually added back in. This doesn't mean you need to eliminate refined carbohydrates from your diet completely; however, choosing whole-grain foods more often than those made with refined grains can be advantageous to your overall health.

Eating whole grains doesn't have to be boring and bland. Discover 17 High-Fiber Whole Grain Recipes You'll Want to Make Forever

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