Refined carbohydrates – they’re everywhere. Mosey down the aisle of any grocery store, especially around the center of the store, and you’ll see these foods in pretty, colored packages – chips, cookies, pastries, pizza, croutons, and other munchies with added sugar. In fact, any food made with white flour is a refined carbohydrate, including white bread itself. Even when you watch television, food ads overwhelming favor refined carbs. It’s rare that you see a commercial for whole foods.
You might have noticed that once you start eating a brownie, or other refined carbohydrate or sugar-laden food, it’s easy to eat even more. Do these types of foods actually trigger over-consumption and cause you to eat more?
What Are Refined Carbohydrates?
Refined carbohydrates are foods that have been altered in some way, usually by stripping away nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They come in two types: sugars and refined grains. Because the “healthy stuff” has been removed from these foods, they’re low in nutrition but still retain significant calories. Manufacturers sometimes add synthetic vitamins and minerals back into refined grains, like white bread, so they can claim that they offer nutritional value. Yet, these foods still lack fiber, a dietary component that most Americans eat far too little of.
Now that you know what refined carbs are, are they a trigger for overeating?
What Research Shows
We know there’s an obesity epidemic and some experts blame the collective widening of the American waistline on the easy availability of junk food and foods made with refined carbohydrates and sugar. The problem with refined carbs and one of the reasons they’re so addictive is their impact on blood sugar. When you eat a pastry, bagel, or bag of chips, the carbohydrates in the food cause your blood sugar to rise. Because there’s so little fiber in the processed foods, your blood sugar undergoes a rapid increase or spike. As it rises, you start to feel full and your hunger subsides, at least temporarily. Because glucose is entering your bloodstream at a fairly fast rate, you get a short-term burst of energy as well.
After that snack of refined carbs, you feel better and your energy level rises but that sense of satiety is short-lived. The refined carbs that so quickly shot up your sugar drop it just as rapidly. When your blood sugar crashes, those feelings of hunger and cravings for sugar hit again. Depending upon how your body handles sugar, how active you are, and how insulin sensitive you are, you might feel those hunger pangs return in as little as one hour and you go in search of a snack.
The Impact of Refined Carbs on Your Brain
The refined carbs you eat have other effects as well. Some imaging studies show that eating a meal of refined carbohydrates changes brain function in certain areas of your brain. Nestled in your brain is a region called the nucleus accumbens, an area that lights up when you eat a high-glycemic food, particularly one that contains sugar. What’s special about the nucleus accumbens is it’s an area of the brain involved in reward. When you bite into a doughnut or cookie, the level of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens shoots up. You see a similar response when you give someone addictive drugs. That’s why some experts believe sugar and refined carbs are addictive.
In one study, researchers asked a group of overweight or obese, but healthy, men to drink a milkshake made with high-glycemic ingredients (like sugar and refined carbs) or low-glycemic ingredients that don’t cause a rapid change in blood sugar. Both milkshakes contained an equal number of calories. Four hours later, the guys who drank the high-glycemic shake were starving while the low-glycemic group was not. Plus, when they used functional MRI imaging to look at their brains, the nucleus accumbens lit up.
Based on this, it’s not surprising that we crave refined carbohydrates more than whole foods. We feel rewarded when we eat them. Plus, manufacturers of processed foods made with refined carbs have a few additional tricks up their sleeves. Behind the scenes, their scientists are working to develop flavorings and other additives that make foods hyperpalatable. When foods are hyperpalatable, they don’t just taste good, they taste addictively delicious. Plus, food manufacturers add just the right combinations of salt, fat, and MSG to make the food irresistible to the palate.
Other Reasons to Avoid Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates don’t just make you hungry, they increase your risk of heart disease as well. Sugary foods and processed carbs can trigger a rise in blood fats called triglycerides. High triglycerides are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. A diet high in refined carbohydrates is also linked with inflammation and accumulation of fat on the liver, a condition called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, or NAFD. Unfortunately, there’s a growing epidemic of fatty liver, partially due to the poor American diet, and many people aren’t aware that they have it. Yet, NAFD can cause permanent liver damage in a subset of people.
The Bottom Line
Refined carbohydrates give your taste buds a short-term fix and your body a quick burst of energy but, like a drug, the energy doesn’t last. When your blood sugar drops, you feel drained of energy and hungry. Plus, you want the feelings of reward that comes from eating hyperpalatable, high-glycemic foods.
The good news is you can reprogram your brain and your taste buds to not need the short-term fix that refined carbohydrates and sugar offer. The key is to stay away from these foods and replace them with healthy, whole foods. Be consistent about it. You can’t change what your taste buds yearn for quickly. It may take weeks to months to break cravings for sugar and refined carbohydrates. However, you’ll be rewarded with better health, a more consistent energy level, and fewer cravings for the wrong foods.
Keep in mind, not all carbs are bad. You need carbohydrates in your diet, especially if you do intense workouts. During high-intensity exercise, carbohydrates are the main supplier of fuel to your muscles. If you eat a very low-carb diet, your performance may suffer. Don’t avoid carbs – simply choose the right ones – fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. These foods are naturally high in fiber and won’t cause blood sugar spikes that cause you to feel hungry or have cravings for the wrong foods.
Prevention magazine. “This is Your Brain on Carbs”
Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Sep;98(3):641-7. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.064113. Epub 2013 Jun 26.
Science Daily. “Quick-burning Carbs May Cause Fatty Liver: Low-glycemic Diet Protected Mice”
Hepat Mon. 2014 Feb; 14(2): e10939.Published online 2014 Feb 17. doi: 10.5812/hepatmon.10939
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