What exactly is a whole grain and how do whole grains differ from refined grains? Basically, a grain consists of three “layers,” each layer consisting of a unique assortment of nutrients. When a grain food contains the intact grain, or at least all parts of the grain in its original proportions, the food is considered to be a whole grain. Through the process of refining, however, two layers of the grain are removed. Historically, refining grain was important as it extended its shelf life, making grain ideal for storing and transport. It was not known at the time that refining had important health implications! In today’s day, however, transportation is rapid, storage is less necessary, and the disadvantages of eating refined grain are well documented.
What are the “nutrient” differences between whole grain and refined grain? Containing not only more vitamins and minerals than refined grain, whole grain foods have been shown to have high antioxidant properties; in fact, more so than even your average fruit or vegetable! Whole grains also contain phytonutrients, which are associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases as discussed below. Most phytonutrients as well as antioxidants, dietary fiber, and many important vitamins are unfortunately removed when grain is refined.
What are the health benefits of eating whole grain over refined grain?
- Cancer Prevention: Phytonutrients as well as other compounds contained in whole grains have been associated with a lower risk of colon cancer, breast cancer, and pancreatic cancer. Also, antioxidants are known to prevent a variety of cancers.
- Diabetes: In general, eating whole grains is well associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Mainly because compounds such as saponins and lectins found in whole grains lower plasma glucose and insulin. Studies also suggest that whole grain intake may improve insulin sensitivity.
- Heart Attack: Studies have consistently shown a strong relationship between eating whole grains and a reduced risk of heart attacks and strokes. This is mainly because whole grain intake tends to reduced blood pressure.
- Weight Loss: Over 14 major studies have reported whole grain consumption to be associated with a reduced risk of obesity and weight gain. This is partially because digesting whole grains affects hunger hormones such that a person is not as quick to become hungry following a whole grain meal. It’s also because digesting whole grains affects metabolism and therefore energy storage differently than refined grains.
- Cholesterol: Whole grains contain compounds such as plant sterols and stenols which are known to lower blood cholesterol by reducing cholesterol absorption.
How much whole grain should I eat? It’s recommended that a person eat three or more 1-ounce servings of a whole grain product per day. However, don’t just add whole grains to your diet. Instead, eat whole grains as a substitute for refined grains (otherwise you’re adding unnecessary calories to your diet).
What are some common whole grains? These include whole wheat, whole oats, brown rice, corn, barley, whole rye, and other grains that are less common. Popcorn is even a whole grain, although I’m not sure the buttery version is very good for health. Most whole grains can be consumed in the form of products such as whole wheat bread, cereal, pastas, and crackers. This makes it very easy to eat whole grains. If you want to barbeque, use whole wheat buns. If you want to cook Italian, use whole wheat pasta. And so on. I know some people argue that whole grain doesn’t taste as good. I actually think it tastes pretty similar, and it’s definitely worth it in the long term. Look for products that say “100% whole ___” as many products are advertise as whole grain even though they contain only some whole grain.
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