Refined vs. Unrefined Grains: What's the Difference

Understanding how refined and unrefined carbohydrates affect your body

Bread is displayed for sale at a Manhattan market. Spencer Platt / GettyImages

Refined and unrefined carbohydrates affect our body's differently. When it comes to our diet, it's important to understand how each type of carbohydrate works so that make the most out of our meals, and choose the right foods, at the right quantities for optimal nutrition.

Refined Carbohydrates: White Foods, Grains and Sugars

Do you remember making papier-mâché projects in arts and crafts class? The usual tools were strips of newspaper and a bowl of paste.

That paste was made of a simple, cheap combination of ingredients: just standard white flour and water. It was sticky, it was gooey, and it worked like glue that hardened in no time. Now think about the last time you ate a piece of white bread or other refined-flour product. The flour in that white bread, once it was moistened with your saliva, became like that pasty glue. It's not tough to imagine how difficult it was for your body to finally eliminate it.

Unrefined Carbohydrates: Whole Grains, Fresh Fruit, and Legumes

What's been "refined" out of these processed carbohydrates are all the beneficial nutrients that nature originally put into them. The bran, the fiber, and most of the vitamins and minerals have been stripped away, leaving a bland, white, longer-lasting and shelf-stable product. White flour has only 20 percent of the vitamins and minerals and 25 percent of the fiber of the original wheat kernel.

That's why a lot of bread products are "enriched" with vitamins and minerals -- they don't contain enough to mention otherwise. Whole wheat flour still contains the hull, germ, and bran of the grain and offers more fiber and nutrients. Other examples of whole grains to incorporate into your diet are oatmeal, not those sugary packets with instant oatmeal, but rolled or steel cut oats.

Brown rice and bran cereal are other examples of whole grains to add to your plate.

The Fiber Factor

One way to distinguish between refined and unrefined carbohydrates is to think about their fiber content. Products that are made out of refined white flour and white sugar usually have very little fiber. Fiber-filled carbohydrates are better for you than those with little or no fiber. Fiber provides a barrier for your digestive system -- otherwise the carbohydrates get turned into sugar immediately. Most Americans eat around 12 grams of fiber a day, while the recommended daily intake ranges from 20 to 45 grams. Whenever you reach for a box of cereal, a loaf of bread, or any other product made with flour (pastas, etc.), always reach for the brand that lists whole wheat or another whole grain as the first ingredient. And also check the fiber content and go with the one that has the most fiber per serving.

The Glycemic Index

A more sophisticated method has emerged to help us distinguish between carbs.

This is the glycemic index, or GI. The glycemic index rates how many readily available sugar is in a particular food. This, in turn, indicates how quickly that food will affect your blood sugar level. White bread, potatoes, and refined cereals, which are rapidly digested, create a surge in blood sugar levels, and so these are classified with high GI ratings. Foods with low GI ratings, such as vegetables, whole grain products, and beans are metabolized more slowly, largely because of their fiber content. These low-GI foods don't cause drastic changes in blood sugar levels and thereby eliminate the highs and lows that can lead to excess snacking and sugar cravings. Making a simple switch in the foods you eat can have a profound effect on your health. For example, eating brown rice instead of white rice will do wonders for controlling your blood sugar level. So will switching from white bread to whole grain bread. Plus, the extra fiber in these foods will expand in your stomach, so you will feel full faster and longer after eating whole grain products. When you're buying whole grain products, continue to be a good food detective and watch out for any ingredients that you are trying to avoid.

Cleaning It Out with Unrefined Carbs

The best way to ensure that your body is getting the kinds of carbs it needs to run smoothly and stay "clean" is to keep eating whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits that give you the extra dose of fiber needed to clean out your system. The natural foods with the highest amounts of fiber are lentils; black, kidney, and lima beans; chickpeas; potatoes with the skin; peas; non-instant oatmeal; pears and apples with the skin; Brussels sprouts; and peaches.

Reprinted from: The Great American Detox Diet: 8 Weeks to Weight Loss and Well-Being by Alex Jamieson. Copyright © Alexandra Jamieson. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold.

Author Alex Jamieson is a Holistic Health Counselor and Gourmet Natural Foods Chef. She lives in Los Angeles and New York with her partner, Morgan, and their cat, Sue. This is her first book.

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