All You Need to Know About the Health Benefits of Whole Grains

Fad diets might attempt to steer you away from carb-rich food like grains, but the range of health benefits whole grains have to offer is not something you want to miss out on.

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Carbs get a bad rap because so many of us often opt for the unhealthy ones — refined carbohydrates in white bread, white pasta and white rice, sugary foods and beverages, and refined starches.

Experts agree that grains should be a part of our daily diet, and eating two to three servings of whole grain foods per day confers benefits for overall health. Research shows a healthy diet rich in whole grains can potentially reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer and obesity.

Even though whole grains are touted as the healthier choice, the average American consumes less than one daily serving of whole grains per day, and research shows that over 40 per cent of Americans don’t consume whole grains at all.

Know the Difference and Health Benefits of Whole Grains

To understand the health benefits of whole grains, it’s important to draw a clear distinction between whole and refined grains.

Whole grains contain all three edible parts of the kernel — the bran, germ and endosperm. Refined grains have the germ and bran stripped away, resulting in a loss of fibre, nutrients and minerals — basically, what makes whole grains nutritious.

Types of whole grains:

  • Wheat
  • Whole Rye
  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Amaranth
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Millet
  • Oats
  • Wild rice

Pulverising whole grains to remove the bran and germ reduces the grain’s protein content by 25 per cent, depletes at least seventeen key nutrients and virtually all of its fibre.

A majority of the wheat we consume today is milled into white flour, which contains plenty of gluten (a hard-to-digest protein found in grains), but barely any nutrients. Heavily refined and processed, white flour can cause an increase in blood sugar levels, food cravings, inflammation, gastrointestinal distress and metabolic slowdown.

Benefits of Whole Grains

Rich in Nutrients

Whole grains are packed with essential nutrients, including protein, vitamins and antioxidants. Whole grains also contain phytoestrogens and essential minerals such as iron, zinc, magnesium, selenium and copper.

They are a good source of thiamin, riboflavin and niacin — B vitamins important for energy metabolism. Folate, another B vitamin in whole grains, promotes the production of red blood cells and is crucial for preventing birth defects in babies, making it an essential nutrient for pregnant women.

High-Fibre Content

Fibre is the major reason why we need more whole grains in our diet as adults require about 25 to 35 grams of fibre every day. Whole grains offer soluble and insoluble fibre — both of which are beneficial to health. Fibre also helps control blood sugar, lower LDL (bad cholesterol), and reduces the risk of colon cancer.

Regulate Blood Sugar

Whole grains, with fuller, more complex structures than processed ones, take longer to digest. Their low glycemic index prevents blood sugar spikes and keep you feeling full for extended periods of time.

Heart Health

Along with preventing the absorption of LDL cholesterol, whole grains also reduce triglyceride levels, both of which contribute to heart disease. As a matter of fact, studies prove whole grains improve overall heart health. An analysis of several separate but similar studies showed the occurrence of heart disease was 21 percent less likely in people who consumed a minimum of 2.5 servings of whole-grain products a day compared with those who ate less than 2 servings per week.

Another study by researchers from Harvard University shows women who ate 2 to 3 portions of whole-grain foods every day were 30 percent less likely to suffer a heart attack or die from cardiovascular disease than women who consumed less than 1 portion of whole grains per week.

Whole grains also lower blood pressure — another major risk factor for heart disease.

Weight control: Whole grains can help keep your weight in check. According to a study by the American Society for Nutrition (ASN), whole grains can lower the risk of diabetes and obesity.

The study found high intakes of cereal fibre or mixtures of whole grains and bran resulted in a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and significant reductions in weight gain among participants.

Healthiest Whole Grains for You

Not all grains are created equal, and based on nutrient density, whole rye, oats, quinoa, millet, and amaranth pack the most nutrients per calorie than any other grains.

For instance, whole rye packs more nutrients in a 100-calorie portion than any other whole grain. It contains four times more fibre than wheat and 50 per cent of the daily recommended intake of iron. Half a cup of oatmeal packs almost 40 per cent of your daily iron intake, 17 percent of your daily vitamin B6 intake, and plenty of fibre, calcium and protein.

There are also alternatives available for people with living with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Gluten can wreak havoc on the digestive system of some people, but that’s not to say gluten intolerant folks need to sidestep grains entirely. Quinoa, brown rice, millet, buckwheat and amaranth provide the health benefits of whole grains minus the gluten content.

Choosing the Right Grains

The difference between whole and refined grains is fairly straightforward; however, identifying whole grain products in a supermarket aisle is harder than you think.

People are often tricked by bread that looks nutritious because it’s brown. But it’s a common practice for manufacturers to do away with the outer layer of bran from the whole wheat kernel, and colour the refined wheat flour brown with molasses. The product is then labelled “100% wheat” bread, which is technically true, but it’s not composed of whole grains.

If a food label claims that the package contains whole grains, the food inside the package must carry the same ratio of bran, germ and endosperm as the grain does before it is processed. Buy bread, pasta and cereal with a “100% Whole Grain” or “100% Whole Wheat” label on the package, and check ingredient labels for “whole-grain” flour.

Adding Whole Grains to Your Diet

Your age, sex and physical activity level determine the amount of grains you need in your diet every day. The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend adults, at the 2,000-calorie level, should consume 6 ounce-equivalents of grains each day, half of which must come from whole grains.

Whether you start your day with a bowl of oatmeal, or enjoy a sandwich made of multi-grain bread at lunch, there’s no wrong way to eat whole grains. They can be consumed whole, cracked or split.

Including whole grains in your diet is easier than you think. Whole grain cereals, bagels and granola make for nutrition-packed breakfasts. The next time you need a healthy snack, reach for some whole-grain crackers, popcorn, or whole-wheat pretzels to fill you up since they are rich in fibre and effectively curb your cravings.

Make your baked goods healthier by switching half the white flour to whole-wheat flour in your usual recipes for breads, muffins, and cakes.

The takeaway

There’s no doubt whole grains are significantly better for your health than refined grains, and making a few simple substitutions in your diet will help you reap their nutritional benefits. Meeting the daily dietary requirement for whole grains delivers a steady supply of fibre, plant-based protein, vitamins and minerals, and health-boosting perks to your body.

Rumana Dsouza

Rumana D’Souza is the social media and content coordinator for Prizm Media and Kudolife. She has found her life’s calling in writing about health and wellness, and believes she can make the world a touch healthier – one blog post at a time.

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