The Truth About White Foods

Should you give up white foods and their 'bad carbs'?

4 min read

White foods - essentially, "bad carbs" like sugar and baked goods made with white flour - have been fingered as a culprit in America's obesity epidemic. But is it true that you should kiss white foods goodbye if you want to lose weight and eat healthfully?

Avoiding refined carbohydrates came onto the national radar when low-carb diets like Atkins and Sugar Busters became popular. It didn't help that a 2004 study showed that people who ate too many refined carbs were at increased risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes.

It is easy to overeat foods like cookies or white-flour pasta - and it's even easier to drink sweetened beverages. It's estimated that Americans drink 22% of our total calories, much of that from beverages sweetened with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.

The diet truth is that carbohydrates are essential for health and are your body’s preferred form of fuel. We can’t live without them -- but we'd be healthier if we got most of our carbohydrates from "smart carbs" like fruits, vegetables, legumes, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. The bottom line: White, refined foods can be part of a healthy diet, but moderation is key.

White food generally refers to foods that are white in color and that have been processed and refined, like flour, rice, pasta, bread, crackers, cereal, and simple sugars like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup.

Natural, unprocessed white foods, such as onions, cauliflower, turnips, white beans, and white potatoes don't fall into the same category. (Of course, health goes out the window when you deep-fry these or any other vegetables, or slather them with butter, sour cream, or cheese.)

The difference between refined white foods and their healthier counterparts is processing and fiber. Most white carbs start with flour that has been ground and refined by stripping off the outer layer, where the fiber is located. Vitamins and/or minerals are frequently added back to enrich the refined product.

In addition to being easy to overeat, refined carbs are less satisfying than "good carbs." The body absorbs processed grains and simple sugars relatively quickly. Increased blood sugar triggers a release of insulin, and, in an hour or two after eating, hunger returns.

Further, many refined-carb foods -- particularly sweetened beverages like sodas -- provide little nutritional value other than calories.

Less-processed "good carbs" are higher in volume and tend to be more filling than refined ones. And controlling portions -- and ultimately, your weight -- is easier when you choose foods that are filling.

If you follow the U.S. government's Dietary Guidelines and make half of your daily grain servings whole grains, this will slow absorption, help meet your fiber needs, and keep you feeling full longer.

But keep in mind that not all whole grains are a good source of fiber. For example, brown rice is more nutritious than white rice because it contains the whole kernel of rice, but it's not necessarily a good source of fiber.

The white food many of us would find hardest to give up is sugar. On average, Americans eat and drink the equivalent of 22 teaspoons of sugar each day, mostly from soft drinks and candy, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). That's as much sugar as in two cans of soda plus a candy bar (roughly 355 calories). Over time, those extra calories add up, causing weight gain and displacing other important nutrients from the diet.

Sugar, in whatever form, provides few nutrients other than calories. Some experts think eating sugar helps lead to cravings for more sweets - and, of course, it can lead to cavities. More significantly, the AHA has raised concerns about sugar's role in obesity, diabetes, and ultimately heart health.

While few of us are willing to give up sugar entirely, if you did, your health certainly wouldn't suffer -- and you'd probably be a little thinner.

So how do you keep from overdoing the white foods or "bad carbs" in your diet?

Use the Nutrition Facts panel on food labels to find out the total carbohydrate, fiber, and sugar content of food products. Also, read the list of ingredients; look for breads, pasta, and other carbohydrate foods that list whole grains as their first ingredient.

To keep sugar in check, the AHA suggests limiting added sugar to 100 calories a day for women and 150 for men. And make your sweet calories work for you by choosing foods that also offer some nutritional goodness, like yogurts or whole-grain cereals.

Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, is director of nutrition for WebMD. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.