Grains seem to be having a tough time lately, with some blaming gluten for major health problems and new grain-free diets popping up every year. So one can easily ask: why eat whole grains, as recommended by health authorities around the world?
However, according to Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and author of two long-running studies, eating 70 g of whole grains a day could reduce the risk of death by 5 percent. . With each additional 1-ounce serving, the risk of dying from heart disease is reduced by 9%. The study also found that replacing refined grains and red meat with whole grains in equal amounts could increase life expectancy by 8-20%.
There is so much to explain about whole grains that I have divided this topic in two. Part 1 covers Why Eat Whole Grains, and Part 2 covers ways to eat more whole grains.
1. What are whole grains?
Grains, also called cereals, are the seeds of some herbs, which are grown for food. The following are all the beans you are likely to find in stores, though not all in whole seed form (alternate names in parentheses):
- Buckwheat (or kasha)
- Corn (hominy, popcorn, corn)
- Oats (oatmeal)
- Wheat (triticale, semolina, seitan, farro, kamut)
- wild rice
whole grains vs. refined grains
A whole grain will contain the whole grain, that is:
- Bran – the outer layer, which contains vitamins, minerals and fibers.
- The endosperm – the main part of the grain, which can be ground into flour. Initially intended to feed the embryo, the germ, when it develops into a new plant. It contains carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals.
- The germ: the smallest component of the grain, which is supposed to germinate if it is planted. It contains proteins, vitamins, minerals and fats.
100% whole grains will contain all 3 parts of the grain (the bran, endosperm, and germ). To obtain refined cereals, whole grains are ground to remove the bran and germ. The final result is a finer texture and lasts longer. However, the process removes many of the nutrients, particularly the fiber.
Whole grains can still be ground, rolled, crushed, or broken. As long as the entire grain is present in the final product, they are still “whole grain.”
Note – when we eat refined grains, our bodies actually use nutrients to digest these nutrient-poor foods, leaving us more nutrient-poor than before we ate them!
footnote 2 – This is why you may come across the terms “enriched grains” and “fortified grains.” “Enriched beans” means that some of the nutrients lost during the milling stage, such as vitamins, are replaced. “Fortified grains” means that some nutrients have been added that were not initially in the grain.
2. Whole grains and fibers
As you can see from the nutrition information above, one of the main nutrients that is removed during the refining process is fiber. It is the part of a plant food that the body cannot digest. As it moves through our digestive system, it absorbs water and helps the body eliminate food waste faster.
Higher consumption is linked to a lower risk of heart disease, as it helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and stabilizes blood sugar. It also fills you up and is an essential tool for losing weight and managing it.
There are 2 varieties of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Good sources of insoluble fiber in cereals are whole wheat and popcorn (minus added butter or sugar), but also teff, spelt, and millet. Barley and oats, as well as amaranth, contain soluble fiber. The body needs both in equal measure for optimal health.
The current recommended fiber intake ranges from 21 to 25 grams for women and 30 to 38 grams for men. However, the vast majority of us only get about half that amount per day, mainly thanks to our highly processed diet of refined grains and our low intake of high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables.
Check out my next post on How to Eat More Whole Grains to find out how to increase your fiber intake the easy way.
3. So why eat whole grains?
The higher fiber content of whole grains is linked to lower overall mortality risk, but that’s not the only reason why eating whole grains is beneficial for our bodies. The bran and germ of cereals also contain a whole range of phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, as well as protein, which play a beneficial role. We are going to list some of the main benefits here:
1. They slow down digestion,
… stabilizing your blood sugar and insulin levels. When eaten, refined grains immediately break down into glucose, just like pure sugar. This causes your blood sugar to spike, then plummet, later, triggering a sugar crash and cravings.
Whole grains break down slower, keeping you full longer.
2. They have been found to help control weight
…by not sending you looking for the next sugar or starch fix, three servings per day is associated with less belly fat.
3. Whole grains, therefore, help prevent type 2 diabetes
…through healthy weight management and stabilization of blood sugar levels. Those benefits kick in with just two servings per day (read my post on How to Eat More Whole Grains to find out what a serving is). This could be due to its high fiber and magnesium content, both of which are linked to better carbohydrate metabolism and insulin sensitivity.
4. Whole grains can help lower blood cholesterol,
… oats being a true champion in this category. Its higher soluble fiber content helps eliminate cholesterol, binding cholesterol and its precursors in the digestive tract and eliminating it quickly. The antioxidants found in oats also play a role.
5. They can help lower blood pressure,
…particularly whole grains that are high in soluble fiber, such as barley and oats. Its antioxidants help improve cardiovascular health and reduce inflammation.
6. Numerous studies on more than 20 types of cancer
… have found an association between eating three servings of whole grains per day and a lower risk of cancer. This is true in particular for gastrointestinal cancers and cancers of the oral cavity, such as the pharynx, esophagus and larynx.
Whole grains offer protective nutrients such as fiber, antioxidants (vitamin E and selenium in particular), and phytochemicals that may help suppress cancer cell growth, block DNA damage, and prevent the formation of carcinogens.
And if the benefits of whole grains start with just two servings per day, research has shown that health improvements increase with each additional serving, up to the 3-4 servings of whole grains recommended daily by the Dietary Guidelines for the americans.
The Take Home Message: Eat Whole Grains for Optimal Health
How to do this? There are many easy ways to identify whole grains in your foods and increase your intake. Read about them in my next article on How to Eat More Whole Grains.