what are refined carbohydrates?

what foods often contain them? what is unhealthy about them?

Posted Answers


Definition: Foods which have been processed by machinery that strips the bran and germ from the whole grain. The process gives foods a finer texture and prolongs shelf life, but it also removes important nutrients, such as B vitamins, fiber, and iron.
Also Known As: refined carbs, refined sugars

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Refined Carbohydrates

Question :
I am looking for information on refined carbohydrates. What are they, exactly? I recently attended a weight-loss seminar and they said to try to stay away from refined carbohydrates. We were given a definition of how they become refined: canning, drying, cooking, processing. Is there really a difference? Any information would help.

Answer :
Yes, there's a difference. Refined carbohydrates are those that have been messed with by our modern food-processing technology. That's significant for a bunch of reasons:

1. Foods contain the nutrients necessary for their own absorption (basically). Once refined (bleached, rolled, whatever), many of those nutrients are removed. So now, in order to absorb the nutrients, we must dip into our own nutritional body stores. If you don't have adequate stores you may get some form of illness.

2. A primary non-nutrient removed in processing is fiber. Fiber is essential to our diets because it regulates intestinal health and bowel movements and slows the release of sugar into the system.

3. Carbohydrates are either simple or complex. The complex carbs are starches. Simple carbs form sugar very quickly; complex carbs form sugar a little less quickly. Once the starches are processed, they form sugar even faster still, which is a stress on the pancreas.

Nutrient density is desirable in all forms of our foods, not just carbohydrates. It's just that carbs require insulin to be absorbed, which makes trouble for those wanting to lose weight -- since fat is formed, not burned, when insulin is high in the bloodstream. Refining those carbs makes insulin go even higher.

The only reason to refine foods is for shelf life, not YOUR life.

Good Health, A.N. Spreen, M.D.

Carbohydrates are the body's most important and readily available source of energy. Even though they've gotten a bad rap in the 2000s and have often been blamed for the obesity epidemic in America, carbs are a necessary part of a healthy diet for both kids and adults.

The two major forms are:

simple sugars (simple carbohydrates), such as fructose, glucose, and lactose, and also found in nutritious whole fruits
starches (complex carbohydrates), found in foods such as starchy vegetables, grains, rice, and breads and cereals
So how, exactly, does the body process carbohydrates and sugar? All carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars. These sugars are absorbed into the bloodstream. As the sugar level rises, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin, which is needed to move sugar from the blood into the cells, where the sugar can be used as a source of energy.

The carbohydrates in some foods (mostly those that contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such as white flour and white rice) are easily broken down and cause your child's blood sugar level to rise quickly. Complex carbohydrates (found in whole grains), on the other hand, are broken down more slowly, allowing blood sugar to rise more gradually. Eating a diet that's high in foods that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar may increase a person's risk of developing health problems like diabetes and heart disease, although these studies have been done mostly in adults.

Despite the recent craze to cut carbs, the bottom line is that not all foods containing carbohydrates are bad for your child, whether they're complex, as in whole grains, or simple carbohydrates, such as those found in fruits. If carbohydrates were such a no-no, we'd have a huge problem, considering that most foods contain them. But, of course, some carbohydrate-dense foods are healthier than others.

Good sources of carbohydrates include:

whole-grain cereals
brown rice
whole-grain breads
low-fat dairy
A healthy balanced diet for children over 2 years should include 50% to 60% of the calories consumed coming from carbohydrates. The key is to make sure that the majority of carbs kids eat are from good sources and to limit the amount of added sugar in their diet.

"Good" vs. "Bad" Carbs
Carbohydrates have taken a lot of heat in recent years. Why? Because many medical experts think excess consumption of refined carbohydrates (refined sugars found in foods and beverages like candy and soda, and refined grains like white rice and white flour, found in many pastas and breads) have contributed to the dramatic rise of obesity in the United States.

But how could any one type of food cause such a big problem? Of course, not exercising and eating larger portions of any foods than we need take the lion's share of blame for the obesity epidemic. But the so-called "bad" carbs — sugar and refined foods — tend to be significant contributors to excess calories. Why? Because they're easy to get our hands on, come in large portions, taste good, and aren't too filling.

People tend to eat more of these refined foods than needed. And, often, foods like colas and candy provide no required nutrients, so we really don't need to eat them at all.

But just because refined carbohydrates have received a lot of flak in recent years doesn't mean that all simple sugars are bad. Simple carbohydrates found in a lot of very nutritious foods — like fruits, vegetables, and dairy products, which provide a range of essential nutrients that support growth and overall health. For example, fresh fruits contain simple carbs, but they have vitamins and fiber, too.

The 2005 dietary guidelines recommend that Americans eat more unrefined (often called "good") carbohydrates by saying that everyone — including kids and teens — should increase whole-grain consumption and limit their intake of added sugar. For children, at least half of their grain intake should come from whole grains.

Whole grains certainly sound like the healthy way to go. But what makes them so different from simple carbohydrates? Whole grains are complex carbohydrates (like brown rice, oatmeal, and whole-grain breads and cereals) that are:

broken down more slowly in the body. Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain (the bran, germ, and endosperm), whereas refined grains are mainly just the endosperm — and that means more for your body to break down. More to break down means the breakdown is slower, the carbohydrates enter the body slower, and it's easier for your body to regulate them.
high in fiber. Not just for the senior-citizen crowd, foods that are good sources of fiber are beneficial because they're filling and, therefore, discourage overeating. Diets rich in whole grains protect against diabetes and heart disease. Plus, when combined with adequate fluid, they help move food through the digestive system to prevent constipation and may protect against gut cancers.
packed with other vitamins and minerals. In addition to fiber, whole grains contain more important vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, magnesium, and iron.
Unrefined carbohydrates found in whole grains are ideal, refined grain products may be fortified with folic acid (also called folate), iron, and other nutrients, and as a result may contain more of these nutrients when compared with whole-grain foods that have not been fortified.

The actual amount of grains will vary depending on your child's age, gender, and level of physical activity. On average, school-age children should eat about 4- to 6-ounce equivalents from the grain group each day and at least half of these servings should come from whole grains. All ounce equivalent is like a serving. So one slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or a half cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or hot cereal can be considered a 1-ounce equivalent.

Sizing Up Sugar
Foods that are high in added sugar (soda, cookies, cake, candy, frozen desserts, and some fruit drinks) tend to also be high in calories and low in other valuable nutrients. As a result, a high-sugar diet is often linked with obesity. Eating too many sugary foods can also lead to tooth decay.

The key to keeping sugar consumption in check is moderation. Added sugar can enhance the taste of some foods, and a little sugar, particularly if it's in a food that provides other important nutrients, such as cereal or yogurt, isn't going to tip the scale or send your child to the dentist.

Instead of giving your child foods that are low in nutrients and high in added sugar, offer healthier choices, such as fruit — a naturally sweet carbohydrate-containing snack that also contains fiber and vitamins that kids need.

One way to cut down on added sugar is to eliminate soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Not only can drinking sweetened sodas lead to the erosion of the enamel of the teeth from the acidity and dental cavities (or caries) from the high sugar content, consider these statistics:

Each 12-ounce (355-milliliter) serving of a carbonated, sweetened soft drink contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons (49 milliliters) of sugar and 150 calories. Sweetened drinks are the largest source of added sugar in the daily diets of U.S. children.
Consuming one 12-ounce (355-milliliter) sweetened soft drink per day increases a child's risk of obesity.
Instead of soda or juice drinks (which often contain as much added sugar as soft drinks), offer kids low-fat milk, water, or 100% fruit juice. Although there's no added sugar in 100% fruit juice, the calories from the natural sugars found in fruit juice can add up. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends limiting juice intake to 4–6 ounces (118–177 milliliters) for children under 7 years old, and no more than 8–12 ounces (237–355 milliliters) of juice for older kids and teens.

Figuring Out Carbs and Sugar
It isn't always easy to tell which foods are the best choices and which aren't, just by looking at the labels. To figure out carbohydrates, look under Nutrition Facts on food labels, where you'll find three numbers for total carbohydrate: the total number of carbohydrates, the amount of dietary fiber, and sugars.

Total Carbohydrate: This number, listed in grams, combines several types of carbohydrates: dietary fibers, sugars, and other carbohydrates.
Dietary Fiber: Listed under Total Carbohydrate, dietary fiber itself has no calories and is a necessary part of a healthy diet. A high-fiber diet promotes bowel regularity and can help reduce cholesterol levels.
Sugars: Also listed under Total Carbohydrate on food labels, sugars are found in most foods. However, the Nutrition Facts label doesn't make the distinction between natural sugars and added sugars. Natural sugars are found in many foods, including fruit and dairy products. Snack foods, candy, and soda often have large amounts of added sugars. To find out if a food has added sugar, you need to look at the ingredient list for sugar, corn syrup or sweetener, dextrose, fructose, honey, or molasses, to name just a few. Avoid products that have sugar or other sweeteners high on the ingredient list.
Although carbohydrates have just 4 calories per gram, the high sugar content in snack foods means the calories can add up quickly, and these "empty calories" usually contain few other nutrients.

Making Carbohydrates Part of a Healthy Diet
Ensuring that kids get a balanced, nutritious diet isn't as hard as it may seem. Simply make good carbohydrate choices (whole grains, fruits, veggies, and low-fat milk and dairy products), stock your home with healthy choices, limit foods containing added sugar (especially those with little or no nutritional value), and encourage kids to be active every day.

Above all, be a good role model. Kids will see your wholesome habits and learn to apply them to leading a healthy lifestyle throughout childhood and into adulthood.

Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: December 2007

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