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Refined Food Risks: Why They're Like Trying to Keep a Bonfire Going with Toilet Paper

You've heard the advice: eat fewer refined foods like white bread and white sugar. But what exactly are refined foods, and what makes them so taboo?

sugar candy

Anything made with white sugar or white flour is at the top of the list of refined foods to avoid.

When you think of something that's refined, you may think of something that is superior to its predecessor. And in terms of food, refined versions are said to be "made purer by an industrial refining process."

And when food processing first began, it was only the wealthy who could afford such luxuries as "refined" white flour and white sugar, while the peasants had to make do with foods the way nature created them.

So what's the problem?

Refined Foods Lack the "Good Stuff"

While your food is being "made purer" it's essentially being stripped of everything in it that's good for you. Nutrients are lost, valuable fibers are removed, and what's left is a bland, nutrient-poor, calorie-rich shell of a real food.

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With refined foods, natural variations such as color and texture are removed, so the end product is often perfectly colorless, uniform in texture and quite uninteresting (a good comparison would be replacing a diverse forest with a strip mall).

Further, many refined foods are so far from their original forms nutritionally that synthetic nutrients have to then be added back in.

Meanwhile, your body processes refined foods very differently than whole foods. Take, for example, a handful of whole grains and a handful of white flour. Let it sift through your fingers and what do you notice? The whole grains go through slowly, while the white flour runs through like water.

This is similar to what happens inside of your body. While whole foods, such as an orange, contain fiber, nutrients and other beneficial compounds that take your body some time to digest, refined foods, such as orange juice, contain only simple carbs that get metabolized very quickly.

Under normal circumstances, every time you eat your blood glucose (sugar) levels will rise slightly. This signals your pancreas to release insulin, which makes sure your blood sugar levels do not get too high.

However, if your blood glucose levels remain elevated for too long, such as can happen if you eat a steady diet of refined foods, it can lead to obesity, diabetes and damage to your kidneys, eyes, nerves and blood vessels.

In this way, eating refined foods are very much like trying to keep a bonfire going with toilet paper. Your body (the bonfire) consumes the refined foods (the toilet paper) extremely quickly, yet does not get enough sustenance to keep fueled for long. After a brief boost, you will need to eat more and more refined foods just to keep going (but eventually even an unlimited amount of refined foods will not be enough to fuel your body).

whole wheat pasta

Love pasta but want to eat healthier? Swap regular noodles for whole-grain varieties that are now widely available in stores.

This may also explain why a 2004 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate the most white bread and other refined foods gained the most belly fat, a dangerous type of fat that can infiltrate your liver and other organs, streak through your muscles and even strangle your heart.

Meanwhile, the people who gained the least amount of weight over time were those who ate high-fiber foods regularly -- and high-fiber foods are, of course, whole foods.

How to Get More Whole Foods in Your Diet

The bottom line is that your body was designed to eat foods in their whole form, and when you give your body this preferred fuel it will function better on all levels. The good news is that it's quite easy to replace refined foods with far healthier whole versions, and here is a list to get you started.

Instead Of ... Choose ...
White bread Whole-grain bread (the FIRST ingredient should say WHOLE Wheat, WHOLE rye, WHOLE buckwheat, or whatever type of grain you choose)
Fruit juice Fresh fruit
White sugar Pure, raw honey
White pasta Whole-wheat pasta
Refined vegetable oil Unrefined cooking oils (they will say "unrefined" on the label)
Bakery (made with white sugar and flour) Home-made varieties made with whole-wheat flour and fruit or honey instead of sugar

Finally, if you are looking for an excellent cooking companion, Alive in 5: Raw Gourmet Meals in Five Minutes is packed with recipes using only healthy, raw foods -- and the results are quick, delicious meals that you can feel good about feeding your family!

Recommended Reading

All the Health Risks of Processed Foods -- In Just a Few Quick, Convenient Bites

Food Nutrition Labels: Six Catches You Need to Know


American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 80, No. 2, 504-513, August 2004

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