Several of the most popular fad diets recommend avoiding all forms of grains, but are grains really as bad as they have been portrayed? As with most nutrition questions, the answer is not so black and white and must be dissected to answer correctly.
What is a grain? Simply, a grain is the edible seed of a grassy plant. Grain foods are varyingly processed prior to human consumption and they may be found as whole or refined grains as well as intact or ground into flour. Truly it is these differences that categorize grains as more or less healthy.
In nature grains are found as kernels with multiple layers including the bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains are ones that contain the entirety of these kernel layers. In contrast, refined grains have been milled to remove the bran and germ layers with the goal of creating a product with a finer texture and longer shelf life. This distinction is important because the dietary fiber as well vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients of natural grains are found in the layers that are removed during the refining process. Refined grains are left with only the endosperm layer, which is purely starch or carbohydrate. Enriched grain products are refined grains that have had synthetic vitamins and minerals added to them to increase their nutritional composition, these grains are still devoid of dietary fiber.
Due to the impacts that the refining process has on grains, it is fair to say that these grain types are less healthy and should be limited in the diet. Because refined grains are lacking in fiber they are also without the beneficial properties that fiber provides. Refined grains are digested by the body more quickly, resulting in a very fast rise and fall in blood sugar as well as inadequacy in producing feelings of fullness. As a result of their inability to produce these feelings of satiety, refined grains are much more likely to be over consumed and thereby lead to weight gain. They also do not support a healthy bowel in the same way as their fibrous counterparts do. Although enriched refined grains are fortified with vitamins and minerals, their micronutrient composition is dissimilar to natural whole grains, whose nutrients and phytochemicals act collaboratively to positively impact health.
Contrarily, whole grains have a composition that is very supportive of health. Whole grains are rich in vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that positively affect health in both individual and synergistic ways. The dietary fiber present in whole grains make them a highly beneficial component of a healthy eating pattern. Due to its role in blood sugar regulation as well as satiety promotion, the dietary fiber content of whole grains allow them to be supportive of weight loss and maintenance. This fiber also plays a direct role in decreasing blood cholesterol levels and aids in cardiovascular health. Through stool regularity and microbiome support dietary fiber also promotes gastrointestinal wellness and intake of whole grains has been associated with decreased colon cancer risk. Overall, studies confirm that consuming 2-3 servings of whole grain foods per day can promote health benefits by reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type II diabetes, colon cancer, and obesity. In fact, whole grains are staples alongside fruits and vegetables in diets that have been shown to be the most supportive of health and longevity.
While processed foods have largely been portrayed negatively, and for good reason, when it comes to grains it is crucial to consider the degree of processing prior to assigning the grain as healthy or not. For example, milled whole grains are processed into a flour that contains the bran, germ, and endosperm. Processed foods such as whole grain bread, tortillas, or pastas are made using this flour type. Some grain products such as steel cut or rolled oats, cracked wheat, or stone ground grains are processed to an even lesser extent in order to increase palatability and digestibility. There may be a spectrum of grain healthy wherein grains that are both whole (containing each layer of the natural grains) and intact (having not been ground, rolled, or cut) are the absolute best for us. Examples include brown and wild rices, hulled barley, oats, and quonia. Health benefits continue to decline with each level of processing thereafter. That said, minimally processed gains and foods made from whole grain flour still represent healthy grain options. Instead of demonized all grains, refined grains and those made with loads of added sugar are the ones that may be categorized as less healthful. Examples include white rice, white pastas, and white breads as well as sugar laden cereal, oatmeal, and granola.
To ensure you’re choosing the best grains, always read the nutrition facts ingredients list. Ingredients appear on the list from most abundant in the product to least. The best grains will only contain one ingredient, the whole grain itself. In grains made from flour, whole grain (wheat) flour should always be first ingredient listed. Also scan for sugar on the ingredients list and try to choose grains with little or no added sugar.