Things like white bread, white pasta and white rice have become staples in the Standard American Diet. Even though there is a trend toward seemingly healthy wheat bread or whole grain pasta, these grains are still processed and refined — to the point that I would not even call them food! Refined carbohydrates are fake foods and should be avoided if you want to build health in your body.
Carbohydrates provide our main source of fuel: glucose. This brain and body form of sugar is created by the breakdown of plant foods. In nature, carbohydrates are linked with vitamins, minerals, protein, fat and fiber.
Complex carbohydrates are those that resist immediate breakdown and are converted into sugar over time–things like sweet potatoes. Refined carbohydrates are those that have been stripped of other nutrients and have had their structure altered so they enter the bloodstream like an injection of sugar. This injection triggers the release of insulin which converts sugar into stored fat rather than energy, starving the brain of needed fuel.
Carbohydrates are an important part of the diet, but your main source of carbs should be coming from vegetables rather than refined grains. Refined carbohydrates have been linked to diseases of the heart, kidneys, liver and pancreas. Refined carbohydrates contribute to hyperactivity, learning problems and violent tendencies and are also connected to allergies, anorexia, bone loss, depression, diabetes, Celiac Disease and gluten intolerance.
B vitamins, in particular, make up the enzymes needed to convert carbohydrates into energy. Refined carbohydrates are often stripped of B vitamins, triggering the conversion of carbohydrates into fat instead which affects cholesterol and triglyceride levels and affects insulin levels.
Although some food manufacturers “enrich” or “fortify” stripped carbs with synthetic forms of B vitamins; no strong evidence exists that finds this supplementation is healthy or effective.
Refined Cereals and Grains
Two of every five deaths in the US can be attributed to cardiovascular disease or diabetes. Many research studies have found that insulin resistance is the forerunner of Type II diabetes and coronary heart disease.
In the past, dietary fat was thought to be the culprit behind rising incidences of these diseases and the American Diabetes Association and the American Heart Association both recommended increasing dietary intake of carbohydrates for energy.
During this low-fat diet craze, intake of refined carbohydrates has soared both in the US and around the globe and researchers have come to better understand how the ingestion of refined carbohydrates affect insulin response and fat production in the body.
Glycemic index is a measure of how quickly carbohydrates are digested. Glycemic load measures the carbohydrate content and the glycemic index of food to give an idea of the blood-sugar-raising potential of carbohydrates.
Potatoes, processed cereal grains and fruit juices have some of the highest glycemic loads. Grains such as corn, rice and wheat that are milled have a high starch level and greatly reduced fiber, nutrient and phytonutrients levels. Whole grains have less effect on the insulin response than do refined grains such as white rice, white flour and other processed grains.
Whole grains must be treated in some way to make them digestible however. Sprouting, souring, soaking and fermentation increases the availability of nutrients in whole grains. Untreated whole grains have compounds that can block nutrient absorption. It’s important to remember also that the nutrient density of grains in general is far lower than other foods like vegetables and fruits.
Extrusion is the process by which food manufacturers “slurry” foods and force them through a machine to make attractive shapes. Extrusion is used to produce a wide variety of foods but cereals take top billing. Those little “O’s,” laden flakes, puffed rice or perfectly shaped potato chips are all examples of extrusion. Grains do not grow from the ground shaped like the letters of the alphabet!
During this process, meat or grains are slurried, compressed, forced through a shape-maker and then sprayed with oil and sugar to seal them. Former corporate biochemist and author of Fighting the Food Giants, Paul Stitt, says that extrusion destroys most of the nutrients in grains, even those vitamins that have been added to enrich the product.
Stitt describes an unpublished study conducted by a cereal company in which rats were fed a variety of diets. One was fed whole wheat and added vitamins and minerals. One group was given water and a vitamin/mineral solution. Another group was given puffed wheat and the vitamin/mineral solution. A fourth group was given only water. The first group of rats lived for a year. The rats fed only water and vitamin/mineral solution lived for 2 months. The rats that were given only water lived about a month. The rats that ate the extruded cereal and vitamin/mineral solution died within two weeks!
The researchers discovered signs of insulin shock in the rats that ate the cereals: dysfunction of the kidneys, liver and pancreas and a degeneration of spinal nerves.
Grains and Sugar
Because grains turn to sugar in our bodies so quickly, we need to look at the effect of refined sugar in our bodies as well. Many refined cereals, breads and packaged foods contain added sugars as well.
The USDA studied the consumption of refined sugars and white flour between 1970 and 1997 and found that dietary intake of high fructose corn syrup, other sweeteners and white flour increased to 144.5 pounds of refined carbohydrates per person per year. This is comparable to 17 pounds of body fat per person every year. Today, the industry produces about 156 pounds of refined sugars per person each year.
Refined sugars provide calories but no nutrients of any kind. They’re often called “empty” calories but they should be called “villianous” calories. They’re not just empty of nutrients: they debit your health in many ways.
Refined sugars now make up 16% of the average American’s diet, contributing to heart disease, obesity and tooth decay, says the Center for Science in the Public Interest. This proportion of empty calories means that Americans have to get 100% of their nutrients from only 84% of their food.
Type II diabetes was once known as “adult-onset” diabetes, but this is no longer true. Endocrinologist Gerald Bernstein says “If you go back 20 years, about 2% of new onset diabetes were in people between 9 and 19 years old. Now, it’s about 30% to 50%.”
In adults, Type II diabetes (which is primarily due to diet and lifestyle) has increased by 70% in thirty-somethings in America, 40% in forty-somethings and 31% in those in their fifties.
Although most of the refined sugars we ingest are in processed foods, many people don’t realize that the “natural” or “raw” sugars they might use at home are also refined. Fruit juices, Florida crystals, sucanat and turbinado crystals are sugars that have been stripped of the components that would slow their absorption. “Raw” sugar is often refined sugar with a bit of molasses for coloring.
Stevia leaf, raw honey, maple syrup or molasses are healthier choices, but it’s still important to use them in moderation.
United Press International (2009)