What if I told you that by making simple substitutions in your diet, you could reduce your risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and maybe even cancer? Oh, and these little changes could also help you manage your weight. Would you be interested?
The simple change that I’m referring to is replacing refined grains in your diet with whole grains. There’s that nutrition buzz word again – “whole grains.” I’m not sure most people know what they are, or how exactly to acquire them, which may be why Americans only consume one serving a day, when the recommended amount is three.
With help from the Whole Grains Council, I will spell out the benefits of whole grains, tell you where you can find them and show you how extraordinarily easy it is to add them to your diet.
With the beginning of agriculture 10,000-15,000 years ago, whole grains made their way into the human diet. About 4000 years later, much of the world came to depend on whole grains such as wheat, oats, barley and rye as a dietary staple.
What makes grains “whole” is that they contain all the crucial parts of the entire grain seed — the endosperm, germ and bran. The germ contains vitamin and minerals, essential fats and antioxidants and the bran contains fiber and protein while the endosperm is full mostly of starch. So, when you’re eating whole grains you know you’re getting powerhouse nutrition, most of which resides in the germ and bran.
Until the industrial revolution over a hundred years ago, refined grains were considered a luxury and took a great deal of man power to make. But changes in grain processing during this time led to the mass production of refined grains. What makes grains “refined” is both the germ and bran are removed during processing, leaving the starchy endosperm, and a soft, palate-pleasing texture. Almost overnight, refined grains, stripped of their nutrition, replaced whole grains as a staple in much of the world’s diets.
It wasn’t until 1970 that researchers began to understand that fiber-containing foods such as whole grains were protective against several chronic diseases. Towards the end of the 20th century, not only was the positive research regarding the health benefits of whole grains mounting, but the low carb craze had turned many Americans against grains. This anti-carb movement inspired the formation of the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, whose mission is to help increase the consumption of whole grains (more on them later).
Show me the science
“The strongest evidence for whole grains’ health benefits is for reducing the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes,” says David Jacobs, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Chair of Whole Grains Council Scientific Advisors. According to the Whole Grains Council, eating whole grains can decrease the risk of stroke by 30-36%, heart disease by 25-28% and diabetes by 21-30%. But pinpointing exactly why whole grains help prevent or reduce the risk of these diseases isn’t always easy.
“The research on single nutrients or compounds in food is mostly negative,” says Jacobs when asked about what specifically makes whole grains health promoting. “It’s really about the whole package — nature developing combinations of things that work right.”
This is what makes whole grains so complex. There are many components in them that may be responsible for their health benefits — B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals (calcium, magnesium, selenium, potassium and iron), disease-fighting phytochemicals that have an antioxidant effect, non-nutrients including enzyme inhibitors that may hinder cancer growth, dietary fiber that helps lower cholesterol and slows the absorption of carbohydrates. I could go on but that would be another article.
Studies also reveal that high whole grain intake is linked to a lower body weight, reduced risk of being overweight and smaller waist circumference. Why is this? No one knows but sure but whole grains contain fiber which helps with satiation (fullness at the meal) and satiety (hunger returning after a meal). Apparently, eating whole grains is a sneaky way of decreasing calorie intake without even knowing it.
According to the National Institute of Cancer Research, foods high in fiber, such as whole grains, are likely to play a protective role in colon cancer. While there have been some inconsistencies with high fiber’s effect on colon cancer, most of the research has focused on total fiber from any food source. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that dietary fiber from any source had less of an effect on reducing colon cancer risk than fiber coming from whole grains. While more studies are needed, there may be something to the protective effect of the whole grain package. We’ll need to stay tuned on that one.
Jacobs says it just makes sense that whole grains are good for our health. “I keep going back to the evolutionary argument” he says. “Whole grains have already been tried and tested by nature.”
Finding whole grains
“Finding whole grains in the supermarket is easier than ever,” says Cynthia Harriman, Director of Food and Nutrition Strategies for the Whole Grains Council. Some commonly consumed whole grains include oats, wheat, corn (includes popcorn), brown rice, wild rice, barely, rye, millet, quinoa, triticale, buckwheat and amaranth.
Harriman says the Whole Grains Council launched their Whole Grain Stamp program the same time 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans came out with their whole grain recommendations of 3 servings a day. Now the Whole Grain Stamp is clearly a success with over 2,000 products and five different countries participating.
The Whole Grain Stamp is yellow and can be found on the side or back of the product’s package. When zeroing in on the package look for the total grams of whole grain on the stamp — a whole grain serving equals 16 grams and to qualify a product needs at least 8 grams (1/2 serving) making the daily goal 48 grams per day (3 servings). Most often you will see the basic stamp but there is also the 100% whole grain stamp reserved for products that are completely whole grain (see both below). Make sure you check The Whole Grains Council’s extensive list of products with the Whole Grain Stamp.
If the product doesn’t have a stamp, you can also search the product’s ingredient list for clues as to whether or not it is whole grain. The first ingredient should be “whole X,” such as “whole oats,” or provide key words like “brown rice” to let you know the product contains mostly whole grains. There is also an FDA heart-health claim that can alert you to whole grain products. Beware of words on the package like “multi-grain” and “wheat” which fail to tell whether or not the product is whole grain.
“Some consumers shy away from whole grains due to bad impressions they had as a child,” says Harriman when asked why some people still aren’t eating whole grains. “Yet the whole grain products of today have come a long way in both taste and texture.” She explains how today’s manufacturers are becoming experts on how to make excellent tasting whole grain items and are constantly finding innovative ways to sneak more into their products.
“It’s important for consumers to try a variety of products,” says Harriman. “They can try three different kinds of whole grain pasta, for example, and then decide which one they like.”
Why is including whole grains in the diet so easy? Because most people already eat grains so all they have to do is find acceptable ways to make the swap. Remember, nothing will work over the long haul unless you first honor your personal preferences.
Because the recommended amount of whole grains is three servings per day or “making half your grains whole,” there’s still plenty of room for your favorite refined grains. For example, once a week I make an egg sandwich on a plain English muffin (and I feel so naughty doing it). But I like it, so it stays. But I get plenty of other whole grains in my diet including bread, rice and cereals.
A great place to add whole grains is on a sandwich that still includes the same tasty items in the middle. Or how about mixing a whole grain cereal with your favorite non-whole grain type? Making a tasty stir fry? Since the rice absorbs the delicious sauce substituting brown rice for white rice makes sense. You like chips with your lunch? Why not try whole grain Sun Chips which are very yummy. Oh, and don’t forget the most unlikely whole grain out there – popcorn! It’s a great snack anytime.
If you are already a savvy whole grain eater, make sure you review the products that contain the Whole Grain Stamp. You might be surprised how some of your favorites fall short. Or, even better, you might just find some inspiration!
So, experiment with whole grains and find the ones that you like. Once you open your eyes to whole grains, you’ll see them everywhere. And before you know it, you’ll be giving your health—and maybe even your waistline— a big boost.
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