Refined and Complex Carbs: How to Make the Right Choice

By: 
Laura Sebring
  |  
September 10, 2020

Over the last several years, there has been what seems like a crusade against carbs. You could be forgiven for thinking that carbohydrates, an essential, and nearly unavoidable part of most diets, were out to kill us. 

Not all carbs are created equal, though. The truth about simple carbs is, as is so often the case, a bit more involved. Lumping carbs together misses the differences between a wide range of food groups that include empty calories from carbonated beverages on the one hand and some of the best foods you can eat like sweet potatoes and lentils on the other. Knowing which carbs to cut and which to keep means learning the difference between refined and complex carbohydrates.

What are Refined Carbs

Refined carbs are found in foods that have been heavily processed to remove many of the other nutrients they normally carry. These foods include white flour, added sugars and sweeteners, white rice, and many other refined ingredients. Typically these simple, refined carbs are easily processed by the body, and will often cause a quick spike in blood sugar levels.

Despite their bad rap lately, carb-heavy foods can carry essential nutrients, and play important roles in digestion and your overall health. Foods containing carbohydrates are typically great sources of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. 

Carbohydrates are typically rich in foods high in sugars, starches, and high-fiber foods. This includes:

  • Fruits
  • Milk products
  • Sodas
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Nuts

As you may well guess, not all of these food sources provide the same health benefits. The nutrition you get from high-fiber vegetables and nuts is very different from carbs you would find in candy bars and soda. Sugars, especially processed ones, are a great example of refined carbs. A few other common examples of refined carbs are listed below:

  • Refined grains
  • White bread
  • Pastries and bagels
  • Tortillas
  • White pasta
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Pizza dough
  • Many breakfast cereals

The alternative to these kinds of foods are the less processed, more natural versions of many of these same foods. These include:

  • Whole grains
  • Whole grain bread
  • Brown rice
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Lentils
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Quinoa 
  • Granola
  • Some varieties of vegetables

These whole foods offer far greater nutritional value than their simple counterparts, but these complex carbs are not found very frequently on the plates of most Americans. It may be possible to keep some complex carbs as a part of a healthy diet, but eliminating the empty calories of simple carbohydrates can be a huge step on the way to a more nutritious, healthy diet.

Weight Gain and Refined Carbs

What makes white bread so different from bread made with whole wheat? The answer lies in how your body processes the carbs you eat. Simple carbs are very easily digested by the body, which means any sugars or nutrients can hit your bloodstream very quickly, causing blood sugar levels to rise rapidly. This property gives refined carbs a high glycemic index, and is at the heart of what makes refined grains bad for weight loss. 

It may seem like splitting hairs to distinguish between good carbs and bad carbs, but these two are worlds apart in what they do to your digestive system. Foods high in complex carbs contain higher levels of dietary fiber. This can help slow your digestion, which releases the sugars in the carbs you eat more slowly. This can prevent the sharp rise in glucose levels and the resulting insulin response as your body tries to balance things out. 

The energy you get from refined carbs is burned up by your body very quickly, which could leave you hungrier faster than if you had eaten the same amount of whole foods filled with complex carbohydrates. This can mean you will eat again sooner, as the empty-carbs you get from white rice, sugary drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup, or a tempting muffin are setting you up to eat more throughout the day. 

Ask many dietitians, and they will tell you that simply aiming for a low-carb diet is not a cure for all ills. In fact, taking a more careful approach that allows wheat flour, granola, sweet potatoes, and other complex carbohydrate-rich foods into your diet can go a long way to improving the health of your digestive system and your overall well-being.

How do Refined Carbs Affect Health?

The effects of eating a diet high in refined carbohydrate foods has more to do with the weight gain associated with eating large amounts of these simple carbs. When you fill up on empty calories, one of two things will happen. Either you will eat more to answer your body’s demand for more nutritious foods, or you will stop eating, starving your body of the important nutrients you need to stay healthy.

Simply put, the most common consequence of a diet high in simple carbohydrates is weight gain. As anyone familiar with healthy eating will tell you, this is the start of many different problems. Long term weight gain and obesity are highly correlated to the onset of heart disease, liver problems and type 2 diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and a host of other health problems. Diabetes is related to obesity, but a diet high in refined carbs is working against you in multiple ways. Eating a diet high in refined grains and other simple carbs has been shown to increase your insulin resistance, which contributes to diabetes.

If you are looking to begin a weight loss program, the good news is you don’t have to cut carbs altogether to start gaining traction and losing pounds. Removing sweet drinks, even if they contain artificial sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup, will not only cut carbs, but it will reduce sugar and sugar substitutes from your diet. Cutting out these empty calories will leave more room in your diet for the foods that can power your body longer, help regulate blood sugar, and reduce cravings that can lead to eating too much.

Weight Loss Procedures and Carbs

For anyone looking to lose weight, talking to a dietitian or nutritionist can help clear up some of the confusion between good carbs and bad carbs. Knowing the effects various foods can have on your diet is important for anyone to know, but if you are thinking about a weight loss procedure, or if you have undergone a bariatric revision, the stakes are even higher. 

If you are learning to live with a new diet after a surgery or procedure that has left you with reduced volume in your stomach, you need to be very careful about what you eat. Since you are on a severely restricted diet, you will need to be careful to make every calorie count. This is going to mean switching out refined grains for whole foods, vegetables, and legumes that can provide not only carbs, but also the dietary fiber and other nutrients you need. 

Whether you are planning out a new diet to finally help you lose weight for good, are considering a weight loss procedure, or are now learning to live with your new stomach after a bariatric revision, at True You Weight Loss we can help you make the most of the few calories you will eat in a day. If you want to know more about how to get the most out of the food you eat, request a consultation today. We can help you plan a diet that will ensure you get the nutrients you need.

Laura Sebring
Laura Sebring
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