What Are Refined Carbs?

superhero-blueThe BJJ Cavewife and a few of her friends are taking part in an online Superhero Unleashed challenge run by Emily Schromm whom we first encountered on one of Robb Wolf’s podcasts.  Since many of the BJJ Cavewife’s friends are new to the whole paleo thing they had a lot of questions about some of the requirements in the challenge, namely the whole ‘no sugar’ and ‘no refined carbs’ thing.  When the BJJ Cavewife couldn’t explain things well enough she turned to me and I wrote this post as way to help them out.

What Are Refined Carbs?

  • Carbohydrates are essentially a macronutrient that can be broken down into sugar.
  • This applies to all carbohydrates except for fiber.
  • Unrefined carbohydrates contain additional nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
  • The refining process removes all fiber, vitamins, and minerals, leaving only the carbs by themselves, and sometimes they put in additives like high fructose corn syrup and other flavor enhancers.

Why no refined carbs and no sugar?

  • Because of INSULIN.
  • When your body is exposed to carbohydrates, refined or unrefined, the body digests them down into their component molecules, and then absorbs them into your blood stream.
  • This causes an elevation in your blood glucose.
  • Your pancreas then releases insulin to deal with the spike in blood glucose.
  • Insulin causes your peripheral tissues to take up the glucose, thereby bringing your blood glucose back down.


Now here is where things get interesting.

  • The tissues most affected by insulin are muscle and fat.  Muscle can only take up a finite amount of glucose, so once those
  • levels are topped the remaining blood glucose only gets taken up into your fat cells, where it is then converted into a triglyceride molecule (aka fat).
  • Fat cells have an INFINITE capacity to store fat…. That’s why you see so many morbidly obese people out there, an
    dpeople getting up to 800 or 900 lbs.
  • The more insulin you are exposed to, the easier it is to become fat.

This is why when she recommends “no sugar” and “no refined carbs,” what she is really getting at is, “no eating things that will spike your insulin!”

Sugar = insulin.
Refined carbs = sugar = insulin.
Unrefined carbs = sugar + fiber = slightly less insulin

Glycemic Index

This is a measure of how fast a certain food gets into the blood stream, with 100 being the highest (glucose by itself).

The higher the glycemic index = the faster the food raises your blood sugar = the more insulin you’re exposed to = more fat stored by your fat cells.

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailWhat about whole grains?

This part makes things a little confusing because whole grains are technically ‘unrefined carbs’ because they are unprocessed, and still have all the fiber and what not in them.  But Emily MTV still forbids eating these because they have a few bad things going for them:

  1. While they don’t cause as much of a spike in blood glucose and therefore insulin as unrefined carbs do… the insulin they elicit is still significant.
  2. They contain things like lectins, gluten, and phytates that can damage your gut lining, prevent absorption of certain nutrients, and worsen overall inflammation.

Final Thoughts:

So if you get confused about what is and isn’t a refined carb, the first thing you can ask yourself is, will this spike my blood sugar?

If yes, then it’s probably better to avoid it.

If you’re not sure, you can check the glycemic index and see, and if it’s 45 or under, it’s probably safe.

For more information on macronutrients and basic biochemistry, you can check out my biochemistry primer.

4 Responses to What Are Refined Carbs?

  1. Mary Jo Kringas says:

    This was so very well explained.. thank you. It has been my experience that the glycemic index is not as useful as using a blood sugar meter to see how the food affects me personally. The blood sugar meters (like the kind diabetics use) can cost under $20 and test strips are low-cost too (at least compared to the damage that eating sugar spiking food can do to my body). I measure my blood sugar before I eat a new food and then one hour after eating that food. If my blood sugar goes up by more than 20 points in the hour, I consider this an insulin spike and avoid that food.

    The reason I think this is important is that I have noticed blood sugar variances among people for the same food. When my son eats a banana, his blood sugar goes up by only 4 points. When I eat a banana, my blood sugar goes up by 140 points… this is why I do not rely as much on the glycemic index as I do on my actual blood sugar measurement.

    Best, Mary Jo

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      100% true! And that is probably the approach I would take.

      Only issue is that my wife and her friends aren’t as gung ho into testing as I am… and they also don’t like needles, the sight of blood… and the prospect finger sticks totally freak them out. So glycemic is the next best thing for them.

  2. NN says:


    Riddle me this. I killed a large sweet potato last night with 4 oz. of grass-fed unsalted, cinnamon on top. Mmm.

    According to the internet, a sweet potato has 26 g of carbs., 3.9 g of which is fiber and 5g is sugar. What’s the rest?!

    • BJJ Caveman says:

      Great question. Had to look it up.

      The rest of the carbs comes from ‘starch.’ This is classified as a carb, but not a sugar.

      If you look in any other things, like whole wheat bread or bananas, there are carbs that are not labeled as sugar or fiber…. and they are starches.

      But we all know that starch is basically sugar in a different form…

      This however does not apply to resistant starches

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