Popular diets such as Whole30 and Paleo shun all grain products from their edible vocabulary. But, are these diets accurate in vilifying this food group? Are their gripes with whole grains warranted?
What does “whole grain” mean?
As a refresher, whole grains are one subgroup of the grains family (think: wheat, rice, oats, corn, barley). A whole grain is the entire seed of a grain crop and can be eaten as a single food, such as oatmeal, brown rice, barley or popcorn, or they can be used as an ingredient in a food, such as whole-wheat flour in bread or pasta.
All grains start out as whole grains, but they become “refined” grains when they are milled to remove the bran and the germ. Why does this matter? Because the bran and germ contain valuable nutrients such as antioxidants, B vitamins, fiber and protein.
Great Grain Benefits
So now that we know what whole grains are, what do they do for our bodies? The answer is: a lot! Numerous scientific studies have proved that eating a diet rich in whole grains can provide health benefits such as reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, weight management, digestive health and maintaining normal blood glucose levels. Studies have also shown that whole grains as part of a healthy diet may help prevent heart disease. Finally, researchers have also observed that diets high in whole-grain foods tend to decrease LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol), triglycerides and blood pressure, and they increase HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).
Fiber: A Hero of Whole Grains
There are many nutrients and components in whole-grain foods that may contribute to these health benefits, but one of the main heroes of whole grains is fiber. Dietary fiber is the part of plants that cannot be digested or absorbed. It’s usually referred to in super-appealing (not!) terms like “roughage” and “bulk.”
Basically, when you eat fiber, it takes a nice trip through your digestive tract without being broken down, which is why it helps provide a feeling of fullness. During its “travel time,” fiber pushes the contents of your gut along, which is why it can be beneficial for digestive health and — ahem — regularity. But remember to add fiber to your diet slowly to minimize gastrointestinal discomfort (and toilet time). There are many other benefits of consuming fiber, such as weight management, and studies have shown that diets rich in fiber are associated with a reduced risk for developing diseases such as heart disease, certain types of cancer and Type 2 diabetes.
Are Grains the Bad Guy?
The short answer is no. Unless you have an allergy to wheat or gluten, there’s no reason why you should avoid grains. In fact, we should be looking for more ways to incorporate them into our diet to reap the health benefits listed above. Be cautious of any diet that “goes against the grain” and requires you to eliminate whole grains (or any large food group) from your diet, as this is not based in sound science. When in doubt, consult a health professional like a registered dietitian.
3 Tips to Make the Most Out of Whole Grains
As you’ve read, whole grains add variety to your diet and provide plenty of valuable nutrients. Here are three key takeaways to help you make the most out of whole grains:
1. Enjoy a variety of whole grains.
Whole grains include a variety of foods like brown rice, quinoa and oats. A Other less-common whole grains include amaranth, emmer wheat (farro), grano (lightly pearled wheat), spelt and wheat berries, and they can be used as ingredients in bread, cereal or bars.
2. Be on the lookout for whole grains at the grocery store.
If you’re choosing a grain-based food like bread, pasta, bars or crackers, look for whole-grain ingredients high up in the ingredient list. You can also look for the whole-grain stamp (either the 100% or basic stamp), which certifies the amount of whole grains in the product.
3. Use whole grains to meet your fiber recommendations.
Whole grains can help you meet your dietary fiber goals of 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. In terms of how much you should be eating, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend making at least half your grains whole. This equals at least three 1-ounce servings of whole grains per day. Examples of 1-ounce equivalents for grains are 1 slice of bread, 1 cup of cereal or 1/2 cup of cooked rice or pasta.
By Sarah Romotsky, RD