Natural vs. Refined Carbs: Know which Ones to Choose

By Lizzie Streit, MS, RDN, LD

Following a low-carbohydrate diet to lose weight is gaining popularity. Typically, this type of diet involves restricting carbs and eating more of one of the other macronutrients - protein or fat. To lose weight and truly lead a healthier lifestyle, however, you do not need to worry about restricting carbohydrates as much as you should pay attention to the types of carbs you eat.  

Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body and the brain, and also provide stored energy for times of exercise. Including carbs in your diet from healthy foods is necessary and beneficial.  

Whole Food Carbohydrates 

When you eat protein, fat, and carbohydrates, especially those from whole food sources, together in an optimal distribution, you will feel satisfied and have stable blood sugar. First, let’s discuss what it means to eat carbs from “whole foods.” Think of foods as being whole when they are minimally processed, meaning all of their original nutrients are intact.  

For example, when rice is grown, it has an outer shell called the bran. The whole grain form of rice, brown rice, has this shell intact, whereas white rice has been processed in a way that gets rid of the bran. Since the bran contains fiber, vitamins and minerals, and protein, brown rice has more nutrients than its white counterpart.  

Naturally occurring foods that are kept whole contain carbohydrates in the form in which they are meant to be consumed: in combination with fiber and other nutrients. These types of carbs also called complex carbohydrates. Examples of complex carbohydrates include whole grains, fruit, legumes and beans, corn, peas, and potatoes. Processing carbohydrates into white rice and white flour strips the original foods of nutrients. 

Carbohydrates and Blood Sugar

The loss of fiber in refined carbohydrates influences how fast these carbs can spike blood sugar. All carbohydrates are broken down into a form of sugar in the body, ultimately leading to a rise in blood sugar. Fiber slows down the absorption of carbohydrates. Eating carbs that are rich in fiber leads to a slower, less drastic rise in blood sugar than the one that occurs after consuming refined carbs without fiber.  

Quick spikes in blood sugar from refined carbohydrates can lead to a blood sugar rollercoaster throughout the day. Instead of stable, slow ups and downs in blood sugar levels, you will experience fast-paced surges and drops that can make you feel tired, moody, and overall less energized. Over time, this pattern may lead to weight gain or difficulty losing weight as well as the development of chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.  

To avoid unstable blood sugars so that you can lose weight and feel your best, try to limit your intake of refined carbohydrates from white breads, pastas, white rice, and baked goods. Reach for complex carbohydrates from fruit, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.  

Note from HFLM: Instead of restricting all carbohydrates to lose weight, get your carbs from healthy, whole food forms. Our meals are designed to include the optimal distribution of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates from healthy sources such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. Get started today to kick start your health goals. 

Stef Keegan