White bread, white rice, and most breakfast cereals have one thing in common: refined carbohydrates.
Although the ingredient sounds positive, it isn’t, at least when it comes to your health. In comparison with their whole-grain counterparts, which are digested slowly and fill you up for hours, refined carbs get processed quickly by the body and are rapidly turned into sugar.
It’s no wonder then that a diet high in refined carbs can play a strong role in weight gain. Knowing which foods contain them is tough, though — refined carbohydrates lurk in dozens of processed foods, from granola bars and baked goods to pizzas and pastas.
To address the issue, Roxanne B. Sukol, a preventive medicine specialist and the medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Enterprise, says people should think of the ingredient simply as “stripped carbs.”
In the book “Grocery: The Buying and Selling of Food in America,” Sukol tells author and chef Michael Ruhlman that carbohydrates “stripped of all their nutrition” is her chief nutritional concern.
Refined carbohydrates start out just like their whole-grain cousins. In the factory, however, food makers remove their nutritious, fiber-rich outer shells, such as the germ and bran. The end result is soft bread, smooth rice, and sweet cereal that gets processed by the body almost as quickly as it was ingested. But while refined carbs might taste delicious, experts agree that they don’t belong in a healthy diet.
Cara Anselmo, a nutritionist and outpatient dietitian at New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said one of the problems with these foods is that they are easy to overeat.
“It’s definitely easiest to overdo it with drinks, refined carbs, foods that have added sugar or are highly processed — those are things that we just tend to keep going,” Anselmo told Business Insider.
This doesn’t mean all carbohydrates are bad, however. Instead of telling clients to ban things like bread and rice from their diets, Anselmo advises swapping foods with refined carbs for whole grain alternatives, like brown rice and whole-grain bread.
These carbs are rich in nutrients like fiber, which keeps us full and helps regulate digestion, and protein, which helps sustain and build muscle. Their refined counterparts typically have very little of either ingredient.
“People need to understand there are nutritious carbohydrates,” Sukol told Ruhlman. These include fruits, vegetables, many beans, and legumes, which Sukol said contain a “fiber matrix” that slows down how quickly they get converted to sugar.
Several recent studies suggest that the best diets are based around whole grains, vegetables, and lean proteins. In its most recent report on the best eating plans, US News and World Report described plant-based diets — which have whole grains and vegetables as their cornerstone — as “good for the environment, your heart, your weight, and your overall health.”
If you’re looking to make a simple, healthy change to your diet, this might be the one to try.