Various gluten-free foods

Daily Nutrition & Health

Are All Carbs Bad? Refined vs. Unrefined Carbohydrates

Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Sr. Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training January 23, 2024

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap in recent years, mainly because people associate carbs with foods like white bread, pasta and rice, in addition to sweetened yogurts and juices. In reality, not all carbs are bad – however, when a carb is refined, many important, beneficial nutrients can be stripped away.

Take whole-grain wheat, for example. When refined into white flour, the starch in the middle remains, but the process strips away the bran and the germ. The bran is a good source of fiber and vitamins, while the germ contains vitamins, minerals and traces of good fat.

This is why it’s important to understand the difference between refined and unrefined carbs.

What Are Good Carbs? Choose Unrefined Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates help our bodies function properly by serving as the primary fuel for our brains and red blood cells. The healthiest carbs are those found in an unrefined and natural state, with nothing removed. Think “whole” and “unprocessed.”

Sources of these good carbs include whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, which are all excellent sources of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. People who follow very low-carb diets, such as a keto diet, risk not getting enough of these nutrients.

How to Get More of the Good Carbs

To incorporate unrefined carbs into your diet, look for foods in their natural state. If you’re preparing any fruits, vegetables or even potatoes for a meal, preserve the skin whenever possible.

As you introduce whole-grain flours, pasta and brown rice to your diet, you may need to adjust to slightly different tastes and textures. But it’s well worth it: in addition to providing more nutrients, these foods are generally more filling than their refined counterparts because of the extra fiber.

How to Cut Back on Processed Carbs

To maintain a healthy diet, aim to reduce your intake of refined and processed carbs:


When looking for healthy bread options, try to avoid white bread and pay close attention to the wheat bread options in front of you. Many manufacturers label their bread as “multigrain,” but you need to look at the ingredient list to determine if the grains are indeed whole grain and not refined. With whole-wheat bread, look for 100 percent whole wheat on the front and 100 percent whole-wheat flour in ingredients. The word “whole” is key – if it just says wheat flour, for example, it is likely refined.

Flours, pasta and rice

Like bread, when shopping for flour, pasta or rice, it’s best to search for whole-grain products like whole-wheat flour, whole-grain pasta and brown rice. Otherwise, the refined products will have had the bran and germ removed, removing nutrients such as iron, folate and B vitamins.

Fruit juices

With fruit juices or fruit sauces, the skins are taken off, removing a lot of the natural fiber and phytonutrients. Always go for the whole fruit versus juice or unsweetened applesauce if you want to maximize the health benefit. In addition, fruit juice is much less filling than whole fruits but packs a lot more calories per serving.

Getting the Most From Your Carbs

Here are a few tricks to start making the transition from refined to unrefined carbs:

  • Try introducing new whole grains into everyday meals. Instead of white rice, switch it up with brown rice, quinoa or millet.
  • Instead of refined white bread, crackers, cereals and snack foods, try 100 percent whole-grain versions instead.
  • When making soups or stews that are heavily meat-based, try reducing the amount of animal protein and replacing it with some canned beans.
  • To wean yourself from juices and stay hydrated, try having sparkling water with a few chunks of whole fruit or vegetable added. You’ll learn to enjoy the flavors of fresh whole foods in a refreshing, low-calorie beverage.