The Truth About Whole Carbs vs. Refined Carbs
There’s a lot of debate out there about high-carb vs. low-carb diets and the potential benefits of one over the other, and it’s led to an equally large amount of confusion over whether carbohydrates, or “carbs,” are good or bad for you. This post isn’t meant to settle that debate but rather to shed some light on one of the main points of this confusion: the difference between whole and refined carbs.
At 4 calories per gram, carbs are found in a wide variety of foods, and they all tend to be lumped together in the high- vs. low-carb debate. But there’s a big difference in how whole carbs from foods like fruits, vegetables and brown rice and refined carbs like those in white bread, sugary desserts and sweetened drinks affect your body.
Refined Carbs: A Nutrient Wasteland
With its high concentration of processed and fast foods, the standard Western diet has plenty of refined carbs. But these carbs start out as whole grains consisting of three parts:
- Bran — Outer layer containing fiber, antioxidants and 50 to 80 percent of the minerals
- Germ — Inner “seed” containing healthy fats, B vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants, including vitamin E
- Endosperm — Food source for the developing seed, made up mostly of starches and some protein
Refined grains are stripped of one or more of these parts and the nutrients contained in them. The most refined products, such as white flour, have both bran and germ removed completely. When this happens, the grain loses:
- 79 percent of the fiber
- 70 percent of the minerals
- 66 percent of the B vitamins
- About 25 percent of the protein
- Most of the antioxidants and phytonutrients
And, strangely enough, the calorie content actually increases about 7 percent!
The Fallacy of Enriched Grains
“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking. “If all that goes away when carbs are refined, then why do so many products say they’re ‘good sources’ of vitamins and minerals?”
The answer lies in the process of “enriching,” in which artificially manufactured nutrients are added back into refined grain products. This is why breakfast cereals with more sugar than soda can claim to be nutritious, and it’s another process that adds to the confusion about carbs. Only a select few nutrients are replaced when refined grains are enriched, and they’re often added in excess of their natural concentrations. So you get a lot of vitamins B1, B2 and B3 along with iron and folate, but you don’t get:
- Vitamin E
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin K
“Enriched” wheat, for example, has only about 5 percent of the vitamin E and 22 percent of the fiber of whole. The lack of these nutrients contributes to what refined carbs do to your body. Synthetic vitamins and minerals aren’t used as efficiently as nutrients found in whole foods, partly because they’re delivered in the wrong proportions and aren’t accompanied by a full spectrum of supporting nutrients.
When you eat refined carbs, your body has to take vitamins and minerals from internal reserves to process and assimilate the food. Since you don’t get the majority of those nutrients back and the ones you do get come from unnatural sources, your reserves deplete over time, leaving you tired, sluggish and prone to getting sick. Other negative consequences include:
- Higher triglycerides
- Increased blood sugar
- Increased cholesterol, especially very-low density particles (VLDL)
These effects put you at a higher risk for chronic diseases like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Research also suggests that low-fiber diets may be linked to a higher risk of colorectal cancer.
Refined Carbs to Avoid
If you’re going to “cut carbs,” refined carbs are the ones you want to get rid of! Take a look at your diet, and take steps to eliminate:
- Added sugar, including high fructose corn syrup
- Refined and enriched flour
- White bread products
- White rice
- White pasta
- Boxed breakfast cereals
- Pastries, snack cakes, donuts, muffins, etc.
The Whole Carb Story
Leaving carbohydrates intact preserves the bran, germ and endosperm as a complete package the way God intended. Think about it: A grain is really a seed. Seeds need a wide variety of nutrients to germinate and then grow and thrive into full plants. When you eat a whole grain, you get these nutrients in the right forms and the proper proportions to support the health of your whole body.
Switching from refined carbs to whole carbs means benefiting from the vitamins and minerals removed during refining plus a whole range of antioxidants, including flavanoids and polyphenols. These powerful phytochemicals aren’t found in processed foods and can’t adequately be added through “enriching” because their combinations in foods and interactions in the body are still largely a mystery. Studies suggest attempting to use isolated antioxidants to treat disease or improve health can actually have the opposite effect. Getting antioxidants from foods like whole grains and other whole carbohydrates, however, preserves the natural balance and allows these compounds to work as they should, protecting your body at a cellular level.
How does this “whole package” benefit your body?
- Lowers cholesterol
- Decreases inflammation
- Lowers the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke
- Improves cardiovascular health
- Improves digestion and gut health
(I cover some of these benefits in more detail in my post, “5 Compelling Reasons to Eat Whole Grains.”)
What Foods Are Whole Carbs?
Pretty much all whole plant foods contain at least some beneficial whole carbohydrates. Many are packed with a wide spectrum of nutrients but are low in calories, and all have the potential to improve your overall health when eaten regularly and in various combinations. The best way to think about the carbs in a plant-based diet is to stop picturing “carbs” as a food group and start thinking of food as food!
Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, spelt, millet and amaranth are all good sources of whole carbs. So are leafy greens, crunchy veggies, starchy veggies, fruits and beans. Even nuts and seeds contain a small amount of carbs. Therefore, making whole plant foods the bulk of your diet means getting all the benefits of carbs without the negative side effects of refining.
Getting the Good Carbs in Your Diet
So what does all of this have to do with weight? Can you safely adopt a high-carb plant-based diet without seeing the scale go up?
Short answer: Yes! In fact, swapping out refined carbs with whole carbs can actually help you lose weight. How does that work? First, fiber contributes to the feeling of satiety, so if you eat unrefined carbs like those listed above, you feel full sooner and stay full longer. Second, whole carbs are much more complex than refined and take longer to be broken down by the body. This eliminates the spikes and drops in blood sugar you get after eating refined carbs, so you don’t feel “high” after you eat only to completely crash and get shaky and hungry an hour later. You wind up eating fewer calories without feeling deprived, making it easier to lose unwanted weight and maintain a healthy weight once you reach your goals.
Here are a few tips to get you started with a high-carb plant-based diet:
- Clean the processed foods out of your pantry
- Switch to whole-grain breads and pastas
- Switch from white rice to brown
- Snack on whole foods
- Fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, etc.
- Increase your intake of low-calorie whole carbs
- Leafy greens, veggies
- Add beans to your meals in place of meats or processed mock meats
As for the high-carb vs. low-carb debate, don’t let it confuse you. It’s not whether or not you eat carbs but the type of carbs you eat that matters! A nutritious diet should contain a balance of whole, unrefined carbs; lean plant-based proteins; and healthy whole fats. Strike that balance, and you can enjoy your carbs in all their delicious unrefined forms without worrying about “getting fat.”
Need some help boosting your whole grain intake?
Sign up for my mailing list to receive a FREE plant-based diet tip sheet
along with weekly tips, tricks and recipes.