Carbohydrates provide the body with energy, but not all carbohydrates are the same. Refined carbs do not provide lasting energy, and eating too many may cause health problems.

Carbs are an important part of a balanced diet. Unprocessed carbs contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

However, processing them removes nutrients and results in refined carbs, which people sometimes refer to as empty carbs or empty calories.

Refined carbs provide very few vitamins and minerals. The body processes refined carbs quickly, so they do not provide lasting energy, and they can cause a person’s blood sugar to spike.

In this article, we look at the differences between refined and complex carbs. We also list alternative foods that people can choose.

a woman looking at a load of bread that is high in refined carbsShare on Pinterest
Bread made from white flour is high in refined carbs.

Carbs consist of:

  • Sugars: Fruits, milk products, and ultra processed foods, such as sodas and flavored candy bars, contain sugars.
  • Starches: Grains, legumes, and vegetables contain starches.
  • Fiber: The digestive system cannot break down dietary fiber, which is in fruits, vegetables, and other foods.

The body digests refined carbohydrates quickly, and they provide a source of energy. However, they can cause a quick rise in blood sugar and trigger the pancreas to release insulin.

There are different methods of processing foods to refine them:

MethodExamples
Breaking down foodsRemoving the bran from around a grain and grinding up the grain to make flour.
ExtractionTaking sucrose from sugar beet or sugarcane to make table sugar.
ConcentrationCrushing and blending oranges, then removing the water to make concentrated fruit juice.

Big companies can also ultra process food. The term ultra processed describes foods that undergo production on an industrial scale, such as soda and cookies.

Ultra processed foods contain substances that people do not use in everyday cooking, such as additives.

They can contain five times more added sugar than other foods.

The body uses refined carbs much more quickly than it uses unrefined carbs.

As a result, refined carbs create a short burst of energy, whereas unrefined carbs release energy more slowly throughout the day.

Once the short burst of energy is over, a person may need to eat more food to gain more energy.

As a result, they can consume a high number of calories, contributing to weight gain.

Having overweight or obesity can increase the risk of health problems, such as:

  • heart disease
  • type 2 diabetes
  • stroke
  • hypertension
  • asthma
  • chronic back pain
  • osteoarthritis

Refined carbs also do not have as much nutritional value as unrefined carbs. They lack fiber, which is important for both digestive health and keeping blood sugar stable.

Ideally, a person should consume between 200g and 300g of carbohydrates per day.

Carbohydrates can be simple or complex.

Both comprise small particles called molecules, which join together in a chain.

Complex carbohydrates consist of long chains of molecules, while short chains make up simple carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates affect a person’s blood sugar. A person can track their carbohydrate intake using a glycemic index tool.

Complex carbohydrates that score lower on the glycemic index tool include oatmeal, sweet potatoes, peas, fruits, and vegetables.

These types of carbohydrates contain more nutritional benefits and take longer for the body to digest. As a result, they have a healthier effect on a person’s blood sugar level.

Refined carbohydrates score highly on the glycemic index and include white bread, potatoes, popcorn, and rice cakes. It is these types of carbohydrates that can increase the risk of certain health conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Refined carbs are present in two main foodstuffs: refined grains and refined sugars.

Milling the grain removes the bran and germ. Doing this improves the shelf life of the grain and gives it a finer texture. However, it removes the B vitamins, iron, and dietary fiber.

Some examples include:

  • bread and tortillas containing white flour
  • bagels
  • waffles and pastries
  • breakfast cereals
  • white rice
  • pizza

People will find refined sugars in a wide range of sweet and savory foods.

Some examples include:

  • flavored yogurt
  • cakes
  • soda, fruit juice, and smoothies
  • pasta sauce
  • condiments, such as ketchup or BBQ sauce
  • granola

Unprocessed foods are generally low in refined carbs.

Some examples include:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grain bread
  • brown rice
  • beans and pulses

According to the Department of Agriculture, current dietary guidelines for people in the United States recommend that half of every plate should be fruits and vegetables. In addition, at least half of the grains that a person eats should be whole grains.

There are some easy ways to avoid refined carbs.

A person can make healthful decisions, such as eating fruit if they want something sweet and opting to eat brown rice or whole grain bread rather than white rice or bread.

It is also best to avoid adding sugar to food. Adding sugar to food does not boost its nutritional value.

When shopping, a person can check the labels to help them make healthful decisions.

Manufacturers use many different names for refined sugars, so people should check labels for the following ingredients:

  • syrup
  • molasses
  • sweetener
  • fructose
  • sucrose
  • maltose
  • dextrose

Here are some alternatives to refined carbs:

Refined carbohydrateAlternative
white breadwhole grain bread
flavored yogurtnatural yogurt
ready-made pasta saucechopped tomatoes with herbs
breakfast cerealoatmeal
white ricebrown rice

Refined carbs do not provide lasting energy, and they are missing important nutrients.

Eating too many refined carbs can lead to weight gain and health problems.

Gradually reducing the number of refined carbs in the diet and choosing healthful alternatives can benefit overall well-being.

People can avoid refined carbs by checking food labels carefully. A healthful diet should include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and unprocessed foods.