Whole Grains vs Refined Grains


What is the difference between a whole grain and a refined grain anyway? And while we're on the subject, what is the difference between a simple carbohydrate and a complex carbohydrate?

Simply put, whole grains are exactly what they sound like- the whole entire grain as it grows from the ground. A whole grain has 3 parts: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. The bran is the fibrous outer layer of the grain, designed by nature to keep water out of the grain kernel. The endosperm takes up most of the inside of the grain and is mostly starch and sugar, with some vitamins and minerals as well as a little protein. Then there is the small germ, that glorious 3% of the grain kernel containing lots of B vitamins, other vitamins and minerals, and healthy fats including omega 3. Basically, a whole grain is a tiny present for your body filled with vitamins and minerals and protein and healthy fat, all wrapped up in high-fiber packaging. Pretty great right? Right.

On the other hand, there is a refined grain. In a refined grain, the bran and the germ are removed from the grain kernel, leaving just the sugar and starch found in the endosperm. Sometimes a small portion of the nutrients from the original grain (some B vitamins and iron) are added back into the refined grain product (like "enriched white flour" or "enriched wheat flour" [which, by the way, is just white flour that has a tiny bit of bran added to make it look brown]). But in a refined grain, you are not getting NEARLY the nutrition you get from the original delicious whole grain. Pretty sad right? Right.

You see all that beautiful bran and that impressive, golden germ? All that is removed when the grain is refined! Sad face.

You see all that beautiful bran and that impressive, golden germ? All that is removed when the grain is refined! Sad face.

Refined grains are fine to eat in moderation--turns out a cake baked with whole wheat flour and bran, while possible, is not nearly as tasty and fluffy as a cake made with white flour. And it is ok to reward yourself every once in a while. Just try to focus more heavily on whole grains, and whole foods instead of refined grains and processed foods.

The terms "simple" and "complex" carbohydrates refer to the molecular structure of the carbohydrate. A simple carbohydrate consists of only one or two sugar molecules bonded together. Your body can easily break this bond and absorb the sugars, which causes your insulin to spike (insulin lays fat). A complex carbohydrate consists of multiple, sometimes hundreds, of sugar molecules bonded together--like in starch and fiber. Your body has a harder time breaking all these bonds, so the sugar is more slowly absorbed, and thus your insulin will not spike as much (which means you will lay less fat). Foods high in simple sugars are things like soda, candy, table sugar, and things made with white flour. Milk products and fruit also have simple sugars, but are healthier choices than candy or cake because they also contain vitamins, minerals, and in the case of fruit, fiber. Things high in complex carbohydrates are whole grains, pastas (whole grain or quinoa is best), breads (whole grain high fiber are best), beans/legumes, and veggies.

So really the whole point of this post is this: Eat more whole grains and complex carbs and eat less refined grains and simple carbs. So enjoy some sauteed veggies and sweet potatoes (complex carbs) served over brown rice (whole grain)! Go with your healthy selves!