Nutrition trends are a lot like high school friendships. One day you’re in, the next you’re out. Sadly, that’s been the experience of our friend, the lonely carb. No one seems to want to sit with them at the lunch table anymore.
With the popularity of Atkins, paleo, gluten free, and now keto, we’ve seen almost a complete rejection of carbohydrates when it comes to health and fitness.
The reality, though, is that carbs are not the devil that wellness blogs have made them out to be. They’re the OG energizing fuel and a premium snack for your body and brain.
You just have to know which ones to keep around. There are three main carbohydrate types: starches, fibers, and sugars.
While some sugars are naturally occurring and bound up with beneficial fibers — oh hi there, fruits and veggies — we’re not really concerned about this for the general population.
We can all likely benefit from being moderate about our intake of refined carbs, however.
Refined or “simple” carbohydrates
These are carbs that either:
- are naturally low in fiber and nutrients
- have been processed in a way that strips out fiber, vitamins, and minerals
Without those beneficial fibers, they raise our blood sugar and insulin faster, leaving us ravenous again soon after eating. Refined carbs can be further classified as sugars and refined grains.
Found in pastries, cakes and pies, candy, soda, and cookies — sugars are often refined commercially or added to foods to make them sweeter, prolong their shelf life, or improve their texture.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that men stick to no more than 9teaspoons of added sugars a day, and women just 6 teaspoons.
The official US guidelines suggest that sugars be limited to just 10 percent of daily calories. So, for a 2000 calorie diet, that would amount to about 50 grams per day.
To put those numbers into perspective, one pack of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (aka just two lil’ cups) has 22 grams of sugar.
That’s almost half of a female’s total sugar allowance for the day *Insert Kim K crying face* and two-thirds of a male’s sugar allowance.
Grains in their whole, unadulterated form are powerful sources of nutrition and fiber.
Unfortunately, most of the grains in the average American’s diet have been milled and processed so the beneficial bran and germ is removed.
These processed grains end up in white bread, de-germed cornmeal, white rice, white pasta and sweetened cereals.
The processing may prolong the shelf life of grains (not to mention provide a soft, pillowy mouthfeel) but it also removes fiber, healthy fat, iron and B vitamins.
According to research, sticking to whole grains with the aforementioned compounds still intact may help reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
It could even help increase your lifespan (hellooo centenarian club).
This gets a bit science-y — but stick with us.
When we consume refined carbs stripped of digestion-slowing fiber or fat, disaccharides (sugars like sucrose, lactose, or maltose) are broken down very quickly into easily absorbed monosaccharides (also known as blood-sugar spiking glucose).
As that sugar swiftly enters the blood, the pancreas produces insulin which opens our cells, like a metaphorical garage door opener, to allow the sugar in for energy or storage.
Without protein, fiber or fat, our cells get sugar delivered to them very fast, prompting an energy spike, followed by that dreaded crash.
One 2019 study found that participants who were fed an ultra-processed diet rich in refined carbohydrates ended up consuming an additional 500 calories more than those who were fed whole grains.
Even more reason to stick with whole grains, a meta-analysis of studies and articles spanning a whopping 40 years found that people who ate more fiber and whole grains had lower body weight, cholesterol, and a 15–30 percent lower mortality rate.
So, you know there are refined carbs in that box of semi-stale donuts in the staff room and that oversized Frappuccino, but you may be surprised to find refined carbohydrates lurking in unsuspecting “health foods” as well.
When reading nutrition labels, it’s important to look beyond the carbs or even the “sugars” on the label.
While the FDA has recently updated their nutrition facts label guidelines to explicitly call out “added sugars” from naturally occurring ones, some food manufacturers have until 2021 to comply.
Until then, it’s up to you to do some investigative work with those ingredients lists.
When deciphering your grains, look for the words “whole grain” at the top of the ingredient list. Words like “wheat,” “brown,” or “fortified” may carry a health halo with them, but they may still equate to a refined carbohydrate product.
As for stealthy sugars, look for words that end in the suffix “-ose” like sucrose, maltose, or fructose, along with any syrups, nectars, honey, and fruit juice concentrate.
Low-fat or “diet” nut butter, condiments, and snack foods are one of most surprising sources of refined carbs, as food manufacturers often have to add sugar when they remove fat to improve flavor and texture.
For that reason, research has found that low-fat products tend to have more sugar than their full-fat counterparts.
Considering that healthy fat actually has a beneficial impact on blood sugar response, we suggest reaching for a full-fat product whenever possible.
That creamy, thick soup is often thickened with a “roux” — aka a high-fat mixture of butter and refined white flour or cornstarch.
Make your own creamy soup by mixing in a pureed can of white beans or lentils for an extra dose of protein and fiber.
Sauces, gravies, and salad dressings
Like soups, a lot of gravies and sauces are thickened with white flour or cornstarch. Even so-called “savory” sauces and dressings contain added sugar and corn syrup.
Thicken sauces yourself using whole wheat flour or pureed root vegetables, and use naturally fruity vinegar like apple cider vinegar in dressings to avoid the need for extra sugar.
While yogurt and fruit separately are amazing, most fruit-flavored yogurts contain about 12 grams of sugar per 100 grams, and a standard yogurt cup holds 150–170 grams of product. Buyer beware.
Add some sweetened store-bought granola, and your breakfast has quickly become dessert.
Make your own higher-fiber, low-sugar parfait by combining Greek whole milk plain yogurt for protein and fat, a handful of fresh berries and a sprinkle of high-fiber bran-based cereal or nuts.
Granola bars, power bars, and protein bars
Marketed as a healthy on-the-go option for adults and kids, most commercial bars are designed for athletes, not a 3 p.m. nosh at your desk.
A lot of the most popular options on the market clock in at as much as 22 grams of added sugar, which tallies nearly all your recommended amount of sugar for the day!
Make your own bars at home with a combination of nuts, whole rolled oats, nut butter and a bit of dried fruit to get a more satiating and stable carbohydrate dose.
Dried fruit can also contain a load of added sugar though, so opt for dehydrating your own, or looking for that “no added sugar” label.
When you think of fried chicken, you probably aren’t thinking as much about the carbs as you are the massive load of fat, but that crispy crust is likely not whole grain.
Skip the take-out and whip up your own chicken nuggets or fish strips using whole grain oats, whole grain flour, or almond flour.
Smoothies have a lot of great nutrition potential, but a lot of commercial smoothie bars prepare them more like milkshakes than a balanced meal in a glass.
Thanks to a combination of fruit juice and sweetened frozen yogurt, some regular sized fruit-based smoothies clock in at 50–65 grams of sugar. Yikes!
Make your own at home by pureeing together frozen berries, nut butter, and Greek yogurt for a nutrient-dense sippable snack.
If you’re looking to cut back on refined carbohydrates in your diet, your number one goal should be to cook and eat more whole foods, in general.
This will help you cut back on some of the added sugars and refined grains that sneak into a lot of processed foods.
Swap out refined grains with their whole grain counterparts when choosing bread, pasta, rice, quinoa, and oats.
If your family has a hard time making the switch, replace some of your grains with fiber-rich vegetables to help stretch your starch.
For example, zucchini noodles and cauliflower rice can reduce your carbohydrate portion and add a ton of fiber and antioxidants, all while slashing calories and refined carbs in the process.
As for sugars, explore using fruit to sweeten snacks and desserts instead of relying on syrups or sweeteners.
Ripe bananas can replace a lot of the sugar in baked muffins or breads, and stewed berries set with chia seeds make an amazing no-added-sugar jam.
- Carbohydrates are macronutrients that offer our body a myriad of nutrients and energy.
- Choosing unrefined whole grains and foods with no added sugar while pairing them with a source of fiber, protein or fat will help you reap their energizing benefits without the unpleasant blood sugar spike.