Grains get a bad rap, partially because processed grains cause a rapid rise in blood sugar. However, there’s a world of difference between refined grains and fiber-rich whole grains. In fact, some whole grains actually help stabilize your blood sugar so you don’t get the rapid rise that leads to a spike in insulin. You just have to choose your grains carefully!
It’s true that all grains are composed of long chains of sugar molecules that break down into sugar once they enter your intestinal tract. However, whole grains are also high in fiber. The presence of fiber slows the absorption of glucose so it has less of an impact on your blood sugar.
All grains start out with three parts:
the bran – a tough shell that surrounds the entire grain. This portion contains fiber, minerals, and antioxidants
the endosperm – a carbohydrate-rich layer just beneath the bran
the germ – the portion that can grow into another plant. Contains fats, carbs, protein, antioxidants, vitamins
To refine grains, manufacturers strip away the bran and germ, leaving only the starchy endosperm. When the bran is stripped off during processing, it removes most of the fiber along with vitamins and minerals. Because of the loss of minerals and vitamins, manufacturers add synthetic ones back in. What they can’t replace is the fiber, making refined grains a poor source of fiber. On the other hand, whole grains still retain the bran, the portion that contains the fiber. This helps reduce the rise in blood sugar you get when you eat whole grain foods.
Now, let’s look at some of the best whole grains in terms of blood sugar impact?
Amaranth, a pseudo-grain, originates from Central America and is available in many natural food stores. From a health standpoint, amaranth is higher in protein than many whole grains and is free of gluten. It’s also rich in a variety of minerals we need for good health. Surprisingly, it’s also a better source of calcium than milk. As with the other whole grains mentioned, it’s high fiber content makes means your body breaks it down slowly. This means you won’t get the glucose or insulin spikes you get from refined grains.
Quinoa wins points for being a complete source of protein. It contains all the essential amino acids your body needs but can’t make. It’s also an excellent source of B vitamins, magnesium, iron, calcium, and antioxidants. So nutrient rich is quinoa that the United Nations proclaimed 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa. As you may have noticed, quinoa is undergoing a growth spurt as more people realize it’s a good source of plant-based protein.
But that’s not all quinoa offers. In one study, researchers looked at a variety of grains, pseudo-grains, and legumes in terms of their antioxidant activity. Guess which one topped the list? Yep! It was quinoa. You might think of vegetables and fruits as being a top source of antioxidants. They are! But don’t underestimate the antioxidant benefits of quinoa.
A number of studies show barley is beneficial for people with metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. In one study, participants ate bread made with a high percentage of barley. Upon measuring blood sugar, those who ate the barley bread showed significant improvements in blood sugar and insulin sensitivity. In addition, the participants felt less hungry. A theory is that barley boosts levels of gut hormones involved in appetite and insulin sensitivity. Because barley is high in soluble fiber, it also can lower cholesterol. To top it off, it’s a good source of magnesium, a mineral important for heart health and blood sugar and blood pressure control.
Millet is rich in B vitamins as well as minerals, including calcium, zinc, and magnesium. Like the other whole grains mentioned, it has a low glycemic index, meaning it doesn’t cause a rapid rise in blood sugar like processed grains can. In one study involving diabetics, researchers compared the blood sugar response to a rice-based versus a millet-based breakfast. They found the millet breakfast led to a significant reduction in blood sugar level afterward compared to the rice-based meal.
Freekeh is sometimes called a super grain due to its high nutrient content. Yet, it’s actually wheat harvested when it’s very young and green. However, freekeh outshines mature wheat in terms of its nutritional profile, being higher in protein and fiber. In fact, it just might be the king of fiber, having 3 to 4 times the amount of fiber as brown rice. All that fiber means you don’t get the glucose and insulin spikes that you do with refined grains.
Why Should You Eat Grains at All?
Ask many Paleo diet gurus and they’ll tell you that you should avoid grains entirely, even the fiber-rich ones. Yet, studies show eating moderate quantities of whole grains may be beneficial to your health. One study, published in PLOS One, linked eating two servings of whole grains daily with a 21% reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Even more encouraging is a study that correlated eating 4 servings of whole grain foods daily with a lower risk of mortality compared to eating little or none of these foods. That’s a pretty strong endorsement for whole grains, especially as an alternative to processed grains. Keep in mind, that this is a prospective cohort study and doesn’t show causation. It only shows there’s a link between eating more whole grains and lower mortality. There are almost no intervention studies of significant size looking at whole grain consumption and risk of mortality.
One caveat: If you have Celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten or other proteins in wheat, rye, or barley, choose only those whole grains that are gluten-free.
The Bottom Line
What’s the best approach? Replace the refined grains you’re currently eating with ones on this list. Whole grains are a good source of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants – but so are fruits and vegetables. Make fruits and vegetables a top priority because these foods are nutrient dense and low in calories but, as long as you’re not gluten intolerant, whole grains can be part of a healthy, balanced diet.
PLOS One. “Whole Grain, Bran, and Germ Intake and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Prospective Cohort Study and Systematic Review”
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Eating more whole grains linked with lower mortality rates”
Circulation, online June 13, 2016, doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039.
J Med Food. 2009 Aug;12(4):704-13. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2008.0122.
Authority Nutrition. “11 Proven Health Benefits of Quinoa”
Medical Daily. “Barley Bread Can Reduce Appetite, Cut Blood Glucose Levels, And Lower Your Risk Factors For Diabetes”
WebMD. “Magnesium Lowers Type 2 Diabetes Risk”
The Huffington Post. “Freekeh — The Next Hot Supergrain”
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