Refined Grains: How Food Affects Health

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Refined grains are missing fiber and key nutrients that their whole-grain counterparts retain. Don't miss out on those good-for-you parts — go for the whole grains instead!

Refined grains include white rice, white bread, regular white pasta, and other foods that have been made with white flour (also called enriched wheat flour or all-purpose flour), including many cookies, cakes, breakfast cereals, crackers, and snack foods.

Whole grains contain three parts: the bran (outer layer), endosperm (middle layer), and germ (inner layer). The bran and germ are the most nutritious parts of the grain; they contain concentrated amounts of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. During the refining process, however, the bran and germ are removed from the whole grain. The endosperm, the part of the grain that is left after the refining process, is primarily composed of starchy carbohydrates and is low in nutrients. Some nutrients, including iron and a handful of B vitamins, are added back to refined grains and flours during manufacturing (hence the term "enriched wheat flour"), but these represent only a fraction of what is initially removed from the grain. For these reasons, refined grains do not provide the same health benefits as whole grains.

The type of carbohydrates you eat makes a big difference in the way you metabolize food and in the amount of energy you have. Refined grains are quickly digested into simple sugars and absorbed into your bloodstream; this can cause blood-sugar levels to spike and then quickly crash. These rapid swings in blood sugar can drain your energy and leave you feeling moody and tired. On the other hand, high-quality carbohydrates such as whole grains are rich in fiber, which helps temper blood sugars by slowing the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream after meals. They provide long-lasting energy that will keep you fueled for hours. That’s why it’s best to choose high-quality carbohydrates — which include whole grains as well as vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes — instead of poor-quality carbohydrates, like refined grains, whenever possible.

Compared with diets high in refined grains, diets rich in nutritious whole grains reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high blood pressure. On the flip side, the diet high in refined grains can contribute to high triglycerides and increase inflammation throughout the body, which may worsen symptoms of arthritis. Refined grains may also stand in the way of weight loss; because they are low in fiber, they’re not as filling as whole grains and are much easier to overeat.

White bread, regular pasta, and other products made with "enriched wheat flour" or "all-purpose flour" are wheat-based and therefore contain gluten, so they should be avoided by people with celiac disease. In fact, all versions (including healthy whole-grain varieties) of wheat, rye, and barley contain gluten and must be avoided by people with celiac. If you have celiac disease, specifically choose gluten-free, whole grains like wild and brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and whole corn and packaged foods made with these ingredients (and as an extra measure of precaution, be sure to check package labels).


All-Purpose Flour | Matzo | Pancake and Waffle Mix | Pasta | White Rice

 

All-Purpose Flour
All-purpose flour (also called enriched wheat flour) is the most commonly used flour in recipes and packaged foods like cookies, crackers, breads, and tortillas, but it's not the best for you. All-purpose flour is refined from whole-wheat flour, and during the process most of the fiber and nutrients are removed. By switching to breads and other products made with whole-wheat flour, you’ll increase the fiber and nutrition in your diet. If you're not ready to go 100 percent whole wheat in your cooking and baking, substitute whole-wheat flour for up to half the white flour in recipes to bump up the nutrition without significantly affecting taste or texture. If you have celiac disease, look for flours made from wheat-free and gluten-free grains like rice, buckwheat, potato, and corn.

 

Matzo
Matzo is unleavened bread that has the consistency of a cracker and is most commonly used by Jewish people during Passover. Because matzo is typically made with white flour, it is a simple, refined carbohydrate and should be limited, especially if you have type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high triglycerides, or arthritis. Whenever possible, purchase whole-wheat matzo, which is now readily available and contains more fiber and healthful nutrients than standard matzo. Matzo does not contain yeast, so it is a good bread substitute if you suffer from migraine headaches and have identified yeast as a personal trigger. Matzo and products made with matzo (like matzo meal) contain wheat and therefore should be avoided if you have celiac disease.

 

Pancake and Waffle Mix
Pancakes and waffles are popular breakfast foods, but they are often made from mixes that contain refined flour — not whole grains — making them less nutritious options. When you want to enjoy pancakes or waffles for breakfast, it’s best to use mixes that are made with whole-grain flours, especially if you have type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high triglycerides, or arthritis. That’s because whole-grain mixes provide more fiber and healthful nutrients than those made with white, refined wheat flour. To keep them healthy, top your pancakes and waffles with fresh fruit, yogurt, or natural peanut butter instead of butter and sugary syrup. If you have hypertension, be aware that some mixes are very high in sodium, and if you have celiac disease, be sure to purchase gluten-free varieties.

 

Pasta
Regular pasta is generally made from refined (white) durum wheat flour. For overall health purposes, it’s best to limit white pasta and choose whole-grain pastas instead, especially if you have type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high triglycerides, or arthritis, it’s especially important to limit white rice and other refined grains. However, since white rice is very low in fiber, it can be a good option if you suffer from diarrhea-predominant IBS, and all rice is also a gluten-free grain that can be enjoyed if you have celiac disease.

 

White Rice
White rice is produced by milling whole-grain brown rice to remove the bran and germ. During the milling process, rice loses most of the fiber and nutrients that it originally contained, so it’s always better to choose whole-grain brown or wild rice. If you have type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high triglycerides, or arthritis, it’s especially important to limit white rice and other refined grains. However, since white rice is very low in fiber, it can be a good option if you suffer from diarrhea-predominant IBS, and all rice is also a gluten-free grain that can be enjoyed if you have celiac disease.