News & Events

Refined Is Not Fine!

Stacey Hitesman, R.D., C.N.S.D.

"Enriched" sounds like it would be a good thing, right? Well, when it comes to grains, it's not. Enriching a grain is an attempt to replace some of the nutrients taken out during refining. Refining grains may extend their shelf  life, but it does not add nutritional value.

When grains are refined, the bran and hull of the grain are removed during the process — and with them, almost all the fiber, vitamins and minerals found in a whole-grain kernel. The B vitamins — thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid — and the iron that are removed during processing are then added back in to make the product "enriched." Sugars, salt, fats and chemicals are often added to the finished product as well, but the heart-healthy fiber that was stripped out is gone forever.
Refined-grain products include white pasta, flour tortillas, white rice and white bread. Nutritionally, they are mere shadows of healthful whole grains. You can think of refined grains as "fast carbs” or simple carbohydrates that act similar to sugar. Since there's practically no fiber to slow down their absorption, they may cause your blood sugar to elevate quickly, which leads to a spike in insulin levels. Over time, those repeated spikes can lead to conditions such as insulin resistance, diabetes and fatty liver.

People who eat three servings of whole grains, a complex carbohydrate, a day have a 30-percent lower risk of diabetes than people who never eat whole grains. Other conditions thought to be improved by a high-fiber diet include cardiac disease, hyperlipidemia and even obesity.

Sugars, refined grains and starches supply quick energy to the body in the form of glucose. That’s a good thing if the body needs quick energy for running in a race or competing in sports. However, the better carbs for most people are unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods that contain natural sugars, like fructose in fruit, lactose in milk or no added sugars at all.

When shopping for whole grains, be a savvy consumer. Products that say "whole grain" can still have refined grains in them. In fact, they are only required to be 51-percent whole grain. So that's more like "half grain" — don't buy into it. What to look for? If you see "enriched" as the first word on the ingredient list, put the product back on the shelf. Only if "100-percent whole ___" is the first thing on the list, do you know exactly what you're getting.  Even “wheat flour” is not considered a whole grain, again look for the words “whole wheat.” Other sources of high-fiber nutrient-rich foods include a variety of edible plants such as nuts, seeds, whole fruit, vegetables and beans.

When evaluating a product, read the label. Three grams (3g) of fiber per serving is good; 5g of fiber per serving is great. On a daily basis, The National Academies Institute of Medicine recommends:

• Men aged 50 or younger should get 38 grams of fiber a day.
• Women aged 50 or younger should get 25 grams of fiber a day.
• Because we need fewer calories and food as we get older, men over age 50 should get 30 grams of fiber a day; women over age 50 should get 21 grams of fiber a day.

It is important to understand what kind of carbohydrates you are choosing to fuel your body. In general, the closer the food is to its natural state, the more optimal it is for your body. Eat better than fine – eat great, and you will feel great. Your body will thank you.

Stacey Hitesman, R.D., C.N.S.D., is a registered dietitian at Flagstaff Medical Center.