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  • Writer's pictureMichael McEntee

Carbohydrates: Whole vs. Refined — Here’s the Difference

The amount of carbs we should consume is a highly debated topic. The dietary guidelines suggest that we get about half of our calories from carbohydrates. On the other hand, some claim that carbs may lead to obesity and type 2 diabetes and that most people should avoid them. While there are good arguments on both sides, our bodies need carbohydrates to work well.

What Are Carbs? In nutrition, “carbs” refers to one of the three macronutrients. The other two are protein and fat.

Dietary carbohydrates have three main categories:

  • Sugars. These are sweet, short-chain carbohydrates found in foods. Examples are glucose, fructose, galactose, and sucrose.

  • Starches. These are long chains of glucose molecules, which eventually get broken down into glucose in the digestive system.

  • Fibre. Humans cannot digest fibre, but the bacteria in the digestive system can make use of some of them. Plus, eating fibre is vital to your overall health.

One of the primary purposes of carbohydrates in our diet is to provide fuel for our bodies. Most carbs get broken down or transformed into glucose, which can be used as energy. Carbs can also be turned into fat (stored energy) for later use. Fibre is an exception. It doesn’t provide energy directly, but it does feed the friendly bacteria in the digestive system.

‘Whole’ vs. ‘Refined’ Carbs

Not all carbs are created equal. There are many different types of carbohydrate-containing foods, and they can vary in their health effects. Carbs are sometimes referred to as “simple” versus “complex, or “whole” versus “refined.” Whole carbs are unprocessed and contain the fibre found naturally in the food, while refined carbs have been processed and had the natural fibre removed or changed.

Examples of whole carbs include:

  • vegetables

  • quinoa

  • barley

  • legumes

  • potatoes

  • whole grains

On the other hand, refined carbs include:

  • sugar-sweetened beverages

  • white bread

  • pastries

  • other items made with white flour

Numerous studies show that refined carbohydrate consumption is associated with health conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes. Refined carbohydrates tend to cause spikes in blood sugar levels, which leads to a subsequent crash that can trigger hunger and lead to food cravings. They’re usually also lacking in essential nutrients. Thus, not providing adequate nutrition to the body.

However, all carbohydrate-containing foods shouldn’t be demonised because of the negative health effects of processed items. Whole food sources of carbohydrates are loaded with nutrients and fibre and don’t cause the same spikes and dips in blood sugar levels. Numerous studies on high fibre carbohydrates, including vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains, show that eating them is linked to improved metabolic health and a lower risk of disease.

‘Carbs’ Are Not the Cause of Obesity

Though limiting your carbs can lead to weight loss, it doesn’t mean that eating carbs in and of itself is what caused weight gain in the first place. This is actually a myth that’s been debunked. While it’s true that added sugars and refined carbs are linked to an increased chance of developing obesity, the same is not true of fibre-rich, whole-food sources of carbohydrates.In fact, humans have been eating carbs for thousands of years, in some form or another.

Yet the rate of developing obesity started growing dramatically since the early 1980’s onwards. It’s also worth noting that some populations have remained in excellent health while eating a high carb diet. The Okinawan people and the Kitavan islanders, who consume a significant portion of their daily calorie intake from carbohydrates, have some of the longest lifespans. What they have in common is they eat real, unprocessed foods. However, populations that consume a large amount of refined carbohydrates and processed foods tend to have a higher chance of developing negative health outcomes.

Carbs Are Not ‘Essential,’ But Many Carb-Containing Foods Are Incredibly Healthy

Many people following a low carb diet claim that carbs are not an essential nutrient.

This may be true to an extent, but they’re a critical component of a balanced diet. The nutrition provided by carb-containing foods such as vegetables and fruits provide a variety of health benefits. Although it’s possible to survive even on a zero-carb diet, it’s probably not an optimal choice because you’re missing out on plant foods that science has shown to be beneficial.

How to Make the Right Choices

As a general rule, carbohydrates in their natural, fibre-rich form are healthy, while those stripped of their fibre are not. If it’s a whole, single-ingredient food, then it’s probably a healthy food for most people, no matter what the carbohydrate content is. Instead of thinking of carbs as either “good” or “bad,” focus on increasing whole and complex options over those that are processed. Things are rarely ever black and white in nutrition. But the following foods are a better source of carbs.

  • Vegetables. All of them. It’s best to eat a variety of vegetables every day.

  • Whole fruits.

  • Legumes. Lentils, kidney beans, peas, etc.

  • Nuts. Almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, etc. (Ensuring that you don’t have a nut allergy)

  • Seeds. Chia seeds and pumpkin seeds.

  • Whole grains. Choose grains that are truly whole, as in pure oats, quinoa, brown rice, etc.

  • Tubers. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.

These foods may be acceptable in moderation for some people, but many will do best by avoiding them as much as possible.

  • Sugary drinks. These are sodas, fruit juices with added sugar, and beverages sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

  • White bread. These are refined carbohydrates that are low in essential nutrients and have a negative effect on metabolic health. This applies to most commercially available breads.

  • Pastries, cookies and cakes. These foods tend to be very high in sugar and refined wheat.

  • Ice cream. Most types of ice cream are very high in sugar, although there are exceptions.

  • Sweets and chocolates. If you’re going to eat chocolate, choose quality dark chocolate.

  • French fries and crisps. Whole potatoes are healthy. However, french fries and crisps don’t provide the nutritional benefits that whole potatoes do.

Low Carb Is Great for Some, But Others Function Best with Plenty of Carbs

There is no one-size-fits-all solution in nutrition. The “optimal” carbohydrate intake depends on numerous factors, such as:

  • age

  • gender

  • metabolic health

  • physical activity

  • food culture

  • personal preference

If you’re overweight or have medical conditions such as metabolic syndrome and/or type 2 diabetes, you may be carbohydrate sensitive. In this case, reducing carbohydrate intake is likely beneficial. On the other hand, if you’re just trying to stay healthy, there’s probably no reason for you to avoid “carbs.” However, it’s still important to eat whole, single-ingredient foods as much as possible.

If your body type is naturally lean and/or you’re highly physically active, you may even function much better with plenty of carbs in your diet. For more information about the amount of carbs that’s right for you, talk with your healthcare provider.

Extracts taken from Kris Gunners, BSc from

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