Whether we’re seeking a smaller waist size, a healthier planet, a happier gut, or a new eating philosophy, we love to cut foods out of our diets. While many nutrition experts (and a number of studies) will urge that cutting out whole food groups is not actually a fast-track to health, that doesn’t mean anything and everything deserves a spot in your grocery cart. One prime example: refined grain foods like white breads, pastas, cookies, and crackers.
Honestly, though, what does ‘refined’ even mean? When manufacturers take whole grains and strip away the bran and germ (parts of the grain that contain a lot of its nutrients and fiber), leaving just the endosperm (a smaller, easier-to-digest particle), you get refined grain products like white bread, white rice, some crackers, and more, explains Jackie Newgent, R.D.N., culinary nutritionist and author of The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook.
Since refined grains digest so quickly, there’s an issue: They cause a blood sugar spike, which not only leads to a burst of energy (and then later a crash), but also contributes to weight gain and diabetes risk long-term, Newgent explains. So no matter what your health goals are, nixing refined carbs is a good place to start.
Goodbye, White Foods
Breaking up with refined foods is a smart move long-term (more on that later), but there may be some initial heartbreak, especially if you’re eating the white stuff several times a day.
If you’re used to grabbing a refined packaged snack or munching on leftover white pasta for lunch (hey, mid-afternoon slumps happen to the best of us), you may find yourself feeling totally zonked when you first make the cuts. Carbs are our body’s primary source of energy, so intentional or unintentional, eliminating refined grains may mean a lower total carb intake for the day, says Newgent.
If the rest of your diet is crummy (think lots of boxed or bagged foods but not so much produce) and you don’t make up for missing nutrients with a multivitamin or supplement, cutting refined grain products may leave you wanting for certain nutrients. Though refined products are nutritionally inferior to whole-grain products, many are fortified with nutrients like iron and B vitamins (which many Americans miss out on), says Newgent.
Hello, Whole Grains
With refined carbs officially out of your life, take another look at what foods you are eating. Make sure you’re getting sufficient calories and carbs by incorporating plenty of whole grains and other whole-food carbs into your diet. Foods like oats, sweet potatoes, quinoa, and beans make great replacements for those white carbs, says Newgent.
But what about whole-grain breads and pastas—can they still hang? Yep. “Nutritionally there’s not a huge difference between brown rice you cook at home and whole-grain brown rice noodles,” says Newgent. Sure, these food products are still processed, but the grains in them aren’t stripped down like those in white, refined foods. Along with whole foods, food products made with whole grains do have a place in a healthy diet, Newgent says.
If you’re concerned about missing out on the iron and B vitamins that refined foods are often enriched with, eating a variety of whole foods should keep you covered. For iron, nosh on lentils, beans, or (of course) spinach. And, since vitamin C helps with your iron absorption, throwing some tomatoes into a salad or snacking on oranges or other citrus will help you make the most of the iron you’re eating, according to Newgent. Most whole grains provide thiamine (B1), while animal proteins like turkey, chicken, and tuna contain niacin (B3). You can find riboflavin (B2) in dairy products, almonds, and mushrooms.
What To Expect Long-Term
Once you’ve broken up with refined carbs for whole grains and foods, you’ll notice a few legit changes. Generally, a diet packed with whole-grain and plant-based carbs is much more nutrient dense than its sad white-bread-based counterpart, promoting health in a number of ways.
First, you’ll probably feel more satiated throughout the day. Since whole grains still contain the bran and germ aspects of the grain that are stripped from refined carbs, they also pack fiber that those white foods don’t, says Newgent. “Fiber can help keep you full and prevent you from overeating, and promote healthy blood sugar, cholesterol, and digestive health—but most Americans don’t get enough,” she explains.
If you’re trying to lose weight, this extra fiber may be just what you need: Research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that simply increasing fiber intake (shooting for 30 grams a day) helped people with metabolic syndrome to lose weight, in addition to improving blood pressure and insulin response.
Since you also won’t be dealing with a rollercoaster of blood sugar spikes and drops that go along with nomming on refined carbs, you’ll start to notice steadier energy throughout the day, says Newgent. No more feeling like a zombie by 10 a.m. after a croissant or muffin breakfast! Instead, opt for a bowl of steel cut oats, which packs four grams of fiber and protein per quarter cup.
If you still feel drained after a few solid weeks of whole-grain eating, you may need to bump up the carbs in your daily grub. Carbs should make up at least 40 percent of your total diet (possibly more like 60 percent if you’re really active), says Newgent.
The USDA recommends filling a quarter of your plate with whole grains at mealtime—but you could also try food journaling or using a tracking app to keep your carb intake on track.