Navigating the 3 whites – sodium, sugar, and refined grains


In this article:

  • Sodium, sugar, and refined grains can have a serious impact on your health and well-being.

  • Most people would be surprised to discover just how many products they purchase at the grocery store include added salt and sugar.

  • A Providence cardiologist shares suggestions for healthier -- but still tasty -- substitutions.


The biggest risk factors for diet-related health problems like diabetes and heart disease are eating too much sodium (salt) and not eating enough whole grains and fruit. Many studies have also shown the negative effects of sugar, and how a sugar-filled diet may lead to health problems like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

Although it sounds simple enough, it can be hard to stay away from the “three whites”—sodium, sugar, and refined grains (like white rice). Here are some ways to make healthier substitutions.

Find flavor with less sodium (salt)

Eating too much salt raises the sodium level in your bloodstream and reduces your kidney’s ability to do its job of removing excess water. The extra fluid causes more strain on the blood vessels and leads to high blood pressure.  

Instead of loading up your dishes with salt, try using herbs and spices to flavor your food. You can also try marinating meats with herbs and healthy oil (like olive oil) to infuse more flavor. If you need a seasoning time-saver, try low-sodium sauces or salad dressings.

The sodium levels in packaged and fast foods can be excessively high. A fast-food hamburger can have as much as 1000mg of sodium and a standard frozen meal ranges from approximately 300-700mg of sodium. If you find yourself scrambling for time to make healthy lunches and dinners, meal prepping can help you avoid frozen dinners and take-out.

The amount of sodium you should have every day depends on your age and any health conditions you have. In some cases, you may need to have extreme limits on the amount of sodium you consume. Be sure to talk to your doctor about the appropriate amount of sodium for your diet.

Avoid sugar and look for natural sweets

You may already know how sugar can increase your risk for obesity and diabetes. But did you know sugar can also increase fat in the bloodstream? Too much of this fat (known as triglycerides) can raise your risk for heart disease.

When looking for ways to reduce sugar in your diet, start by looking at the ingredient list on nutrition labels. Check for added sugars that are common in processed foods that you may not even initially recognize, like honey, molasses, or corn syrup.

If you need a sweet fix, try eating more foods with natural sugars, like fresh or frozen fruit, or a smoothie. Opt for products labeled “no sugar added” or “low sugar,” but be careful of “diet” products, as they can have added artificial sweeteners. When it comes to beverages, avoid sugary juices, sodas, and sports drinks. Instead, try to drink water infused with lemon or your favorite fruit or low-fat or non-dairy milk.

Embrace whole grains

Refined grains, like white rice and white bread, have been stripped down from the original whole grain. This means they have far fewer vitamins and nutrients, including fiber, potassium, and magnesium. Refined grains can also have more sugar.

If you’re looking for white rice alternatives, try:

  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Bulger
  • Wild rice
  • Lentils

You may also want to try:

  • Swapping regular pasta with whole wheat pasta
  • Trying whole grain bread instead of white bread
  • Opting for a bowl of oatmeal, rather than a bowl of cold cereal
  • Replacing white flour with whole wheat flour or other flour alternatives


Find a doctor

Looking for more advice on how to navigate the “three whites”? Talk with your doctor or dietician about ways to improve your diet so that you can reduce your risk for serious health problems. You can find a Providence doctor using our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can access a full range of healthcare services.


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Related resources:

Foods that Make You Want to Overeat – and What to Eat Instead

Food Labels 101: Understanding What You’re Eating

9 Healthy, Homemade Breakfasts that Won’t Break the Bank

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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