Nutrition

What Are Refined Carbs? Are They Bad For You?

Looking to cut out refined carbohydrates? Whether you’re looking to maximise your training by paying extra attention to your diet, or you’re looking for a little help with your cut, taking a look at refined carbs is a great place to start. 

In case you’re not sure what refined carbs even are, this article explains it all. Why they can have a negative impact on your training and overall health, and how to swerve them here and there. 

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What Are Refined Carbs?

Let’s begin by addressing the fact that not all carbs are the same. Carbohydrates are your body’s energy resources when you need to dig deep on a busy day or gruelling gym session.

 

Refined Carbs

Refined grains and simple sugars shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities (unless it’s to refuel your body after a hard workout). Refined grains are the likes of white flour used in things like white bread and pasta. Refined carbs are also known as simple carbs or processed carbs. Because they’ve been stripped of their nutritional value and vitamins, they’re considered ‘empty carbs.’1 Your body also digests them quickly, meaning that your blood sugar and insulin levels can spike, causing subsequent hunger and increased risk of insulin resistance.1

 

Complex Carbs

Complex carbs are those that do not cause that quick spike of insulin, but rather, take longer to digest and provide more nutrition. Whole grains, beans, potatoes, and rice are examples of complex carbohydrates. They contain more vitamins, minerals, and fibre than refined carbs, making them take longer to digest and keeping us feeling more satisfied. 

 

Why Are Refined Carbs Bad for Me?

Refined carbohydrates are linked to several serious health conditions.1,2,3 And if you’re concerned about being overweight, there’s a good chance refined carbs are one of the contributing factors.

 

Refined Carbs can be an Ineffective Energy Source

What all of this means is that when you consume refined carbohydrates, it’s essentially the same as fuelling your car with the wrong type of petrol. If you are a sprinter and need a quick boost of energy to perform, refined carbs can be a solution.4 However, athletes who need to power through long training sessions or competitions benefit from the slower digestion of complex carbs.

 

Refined carbs are less nutritious

Cutting refined carbs isn’t exactly a matter of sticking to some intense, difficult diet or making too many adjustments to your nutrition. It’s about choosing foods that help you fuel properly and provide the good nutrition that keeps you at the top of your game. An occasional sweet treat or refined source of carbs definitely isn’t the end of the world, but it’s best to focus on whole, nutritious sources of carbs like whole grains, fruits, and starch vegetables. 

The quick blood-sugar spike your body gets from eating refined carbs doesn’t last as long as healthier options, which will keep you feeling full for longer.5 Therefore there’s a good chance you’ll eat more refined carbs and graze more between meals.

 

Refined Carbs List

  • White bread 
  • White pasta 
  • White rice 
  • Processed, sweetened cereals 
  • Sweetened drinks 
  • Pastries 
  • Cakes, cookies, desserts 
  • Snack foods – crackers, pretzels, chips

 

How Can I Cut Down on Refined Carbohydrates?

Let’s say it again: not all carbs are bad, and you need them in your diet for energy, as well as particular vitamins and minerals. Your next step is to identify refined carbs so you can know when to avoid them and what to replace them with. The main dietary sources of refined carbs are processed foods, white flour, white bread, white rice, pastries, sodas, snacks, pasta, sweets, breakfast cereals and added sugars. 

Many carb-rich foods are good for you, including: 

  • Fresh or frozen unsweetened fruits 
  • Vegetables 
  • Whole grains (whole grain rice, oats, barley, quinoa, corn, etc) 
  • Legumes 

Learn more about the benefits of carbs here:

Take Home Message

Next time you’re filling your shopping trolley, check for an alternative to reduced carbs. A good example is bread, which you can buy in a wholegrain form. The bran and germ are the most nutritious parts of whole grains because they contain high amounts of many nutrients, such as fibre, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and selenium.

To maintain your energy levels without cutting carbs altogether choose unprocessed vegetables, fruit, legumes, root vegetables and whole grains, such as oats and barley. If cutting refined carbs is all about weight loss, then a balanced diet that cuts processed foods is a good place to start but is most effective when combined with regular cardio and resistance training.

Refined carbs here and there really aren’t the end of the world, and sometimes your mind needs that cookie. Cutting them out entirely may lead to cravings and overeating, so try to cut some refined carbs where you can, and don’t be too hard on yourself.

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Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.


  1. Gross, L. S., Li, L., Ford, E. S., & Liu, S. (2004). Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States: an ecologic assessment. The American journal of clinical nutrition79(5), 774-779. 
  2. Li, Y., Hruby, A., Bernstein, A. M., Ley, S. H., Wang, D. D., Chiuve, S. E., … & Hu, F. B. (2015). Saturated fats compared with unsaturated fats and sources of carbohydrates in relation to risk of coronary heart disease: a prospective cohort study. Journal of the American College of Cardiology66(14), 1538-1548. 
  3. Giovannucci, E. (1995). Insulin and colon cancer. Cancer Causes & Control6(2), 164-179. 
  4. Cermak, N. M., & van Loon, L. J. (2013). The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid. Sports Medicine43(11), 1139-1155. 
  5. Brand-Miller, J., McMillan-Price, J., Steinbeck, K., & Caterson, I. (2008). Carbohydrates–the good, the bad and the wholegrain. Asia Pacific journal of clinical nutrition17. 


Claire Muszalski

Claire Muszalski

Registered Dietitian

Claire is a Registered Dietitian through the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a board-certified Health and Wellness Coach through the International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a Master’s degree in Clinical Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Pittsburgh.

Talking and writing about food and fitness is at the heart of Claire’s ethos as she loves to use her experience to help others meet their health and wellness goals.

Claire is also a certified indoor cycling instructor and loves the mental and physical boost she gets from regular runs and yoga classes. When she’s not keeping fit herself, she’s cheering on her hometown’s sports teams in Pittsburgh, or cooking for her family in the kitchen.

Find out more about Claire’s experience here.


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