The Whole Scoop on Whole Versus Refined Grains
Are you hesitant about having that slice of bread, bowl of cereal, or plate of pasta? In an era of low carbohydrate diets and numerous warnings about the role of gains in weight gain, it is easy to see why. But the good news is that there is only a “grain” of truth to the bad press about grains. Specifically, you should cut back on refined grains and eat more whole grains. Here is why.
Crude Facts About Refined Grains
The grains that make up the typical American diet are highly refined. What this means is that the bran (fiber-rich outer layer) and the germ (the nutrient-rich inner part) of the grain are removed during the milling process. Only the endosperm (middle part) remains. Although this process makes grains easier to use in cooking, it strips them of many of B vitamins, iron, vitamin E, selenium, fiber, and other disease-fighting components. Examples of refined grain products include:
- White breads
- Baked goods
- White rice
- Corn flakes cereal
Many refined grain products are enriched, which means that some of the nutrients such as niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, and iron, are added back. However, enrichment does not restore insoluble fiber and other nutrients that are lost during the milling process.
Why Whole Grains Are More Wholesome
Whole grains contain the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. Because they have not gone through the refining process, they are good sources of fiber, B vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium, vitamin E, and selenium. They also contain plant chemicals called phytochemicals, which are believed to have many health-promoting effects.
Whole grains can help with the following:
- Reducing constipation, hemorrhoids, and diverticular disease
- Lowering cholesterol levels and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease
- Reducing the risk of cancer
- Reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Increasing absorption of nutrients, because they take longer to digest
Examples of whole grains include the following:
- Whole wheat
- Brown rice
- Whole oats
Choosing Whole Grains
How do you know if it is whole grain? Do not rely on the name or appearance of the product. Bread may be brown because it contains molasses, brown sugar, or food coloring, not because it is whole wheat. Product names that conjure up images of health and “back to nature” can still be made with mainly white, refined flour.
Look at Ingredients
Look for the ingredient list on the product. It should always say “whole grain” or “whole wheat.” Note that ingredients are listed in descending order by weight. If white flour is the first ingredient, that means that, by weight, there is more white flour than any other kind of flour in the product.
Don’t Be Fooled
Do not be deceived by terminology. “Wheat flour,” “unbleached wheat flour,” or “stoned wheat” are not the same as whole wheat. Beware of products that say “made with whole wheat,” “made with whole grain,” or “made with oatmeal.” This does not tell you how much whole wheat, whole grain, or oatmeal is in the product. You may find that it is near the bottom of the ingredient list.
Eating More Whole Grains
There are many benefits to eating more whole grains. They’re more nutritious, healthful, and filling than refined grains, and have more texture and flavor. The United States Departement of Agriculture's MyPlate recommends consuming a minimum of 3-4 ounces of whole-grain products per day for adults. This means that at least half of your total intake of grains should be from whole grains. Stock your pantry with whole grain cereals, brown rice, whole grain bread, and whole wheat pasta, crackers, breads, and rolls. Experiment with some delicious new whole grains and whole grain recipes—you will be glad you did!
American Dietetic Association
American Dietetic Association website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/cps/rde/xchg/ada/hs.xsl/index.html .
Food groups: How many grain foods are needed daily? United States Department of Agriculture, Choose MyPlate website. Available at: http://www.choosemyplate.gov/foodgroups/grains_amount_table.html. Updated June 4, 2011. Accessed June 23, 2011.
McKeown N, et.al. Whole grain intake is favorably associated with metabolic risk factors for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in the Framingham Offspring Study. Am J Clin Nutr . 2002;76:390-398.
Tufts University. Nutrition Matters.
University of New Mexico. Nutrition Notes Newsletter.
Last reviewed October 2010 by Brian P. Randall, MD
Last updated Updated: 6/23/2011
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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