Whole Grains: Do They Have a Place in a Healthy Diet?

Whole Grains: Do They Have a Place in a Healthy Diet?

Whole Grains: Do They Have a Place in a Healthy Diet?

With the popularity of the Paleo diet, more people are limiting whole grains in their diet, believing that they’re unhealthy. In reality, research doesn’t support this idea. Refined grains are something you want to avoid, but whole grains offer an excellent source of something most of us don’t get enough of – fiber. Unlike refined grains that have had the healthy parts of the plant removed, whole grains retain the beneficial components of the plant that you want in your diet.

The Composition of a Whole Grain

An unprocessed whole grain contains three components – a nutrient-rich center called the germ, a fiber-rich outer covering that contains B vitamins and minerals called the bran, and a layer in-between that’s mostly carbohydrates. When a whole grain is processed to make the myriad of products like cereals, bread, and pasta you find on supermarket shelves, all that’s left is the endosperm, the least nutritious part of the grain. With the fiber stripped away along with the bran, processed grains cause a rapid rise in blood sugar that you don’t get when you consume whole, unprocessed grains. That’s why whole grains are a better choice for diabetics.

Because refined grains are stripped of their nutrients, manufacturers add vitamins and minerals back in through a process called fortification. But what nature puts in is usually better and what manufacturers don’t replace is the fiber, one of the most important reasons to eat whole grains in moderation. What few people realize is whole grains are also a natural source of antioxidants. In fact, a chemist at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania found that whole grains are as rich in antioxidants by weight as fruits and vegetables

Whole grains are also abundant in phytosterols, plant-based components that help lower cholesterol. The fiber in unrefined grains also serves as a food source for gut-friendly, probiotic bacteria that help support intestinal health and a healthy immune system. Preliminary research suggests cultivating a diverse colony of gut bacteria is important for health and these bacteria love the resistant starch and undigestible fiber in whole grain foods.

What Does Science Say about Whole Grains?

All of these things are good, but here’s a more convincing reason not to purge whole grains from your diet. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed the eating habits of almost 75,000 women and 44,000 men as part of the Nurses’ Health Study. Upon doing so, they found a link between whole grain consumption and a lower risk for type 2 diabetes and mortality due to heart disease. One more reason not to shun whole grains.

Of course, you can’t say from these studies that whole grains directly lower heart disease or type 2 diabetes risk, only that the two are correlated. It’s possible that people who eat whole grains lead an overall healthier lifestyle that places them at lower risk for chronic diseases. Still, the link is intriguing.

A number of other studies also show a link between eating whole grains and reduced risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even hypertension. Consuming moderate quantities of whole grains may also lower the risk for obesity, possibly due to the satiety effects or because the fiber in whole grains reduces the blood sugar response to a meal. Research has even linked whole grains with a reduction in belly fat. At the very least, when you substitute whole grains for refined grains, you create a more favorable metabolic environment.

Can You Be Healthy without Whole Grains in Your Diet?

Does a healthy diet have to have whole grain foods? A diet without whole grains can still be healthful, as long as you’re eating lots of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables and not substituting refined grains for whole grains. Add moderate quantities of whole grain foods to your diet just make it easier to meet your fiber requirements and helps to fill you up. If you find you experience bloating or indigestion when you eat them, you should avoid them and make up for it by eating lots of whole plant-based foods, particularly vegetables. If you’re sensitive to gluten, you’ll also want to avoid gluten-containing grains.

Even if you want to avoid gluten, you have a variety of fiber-rich, whole grain options, including such choices as the ancient grain amaranth, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, teff, and quinoa as well as brown rice and wild rice. All of these options are gluten-free and a good source of B-vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Quinoa is a good source of plant-based protein as well. Quinoa and buckwheat are not true grains, but pseudocereals, although they’re often classified as grains.

Replace Refined Grains with Whole Grains

Most people don’t get enough whole grains in their diet. By far the greatest benefits come from substituting whole, unprocessed grains for refined grains. Doing so will greatly increase the fiber in your diet, help with blood sugar control, feed gut-friendly probiotic bacteria that keep your intestinal tract healthy, and help you feel full and satisfied. Start by making small changes. Here are some to get you started:

.   Substitute whole grain bread, don’t be fooled by all darkly-colored bread, some are dyed and contain very little whole grain or fiber, for white bread. Look for 100% whole-grain bread.

.   Replace boxed breakfast cereal with hot quinoa or amaranth cereal.

.   Replace starchy side dishes with a side of quinoa or millet.

.   Substitute quinoa where you would normally use rice. Quinoa has a similar texture but is higher in protein.

.   Make veggie burgers using quinoa or millet. You’ll find a variety of recipes online.

.   Limit pasta in your diet but when you do eat it, choose whole-grain pasta. It’s a bit chewier, but you may find you like the texture once you get used to it.

.   Experiment with ancient grains like amaranth. Most people have never tried it. Grab an ancient grain cookbook and try something totally new.

 The Bottom Line?

Despite the naysayers, research supports the benefits of eating whole grain foods. Eat them in moderation and as a replacement for refined grains and enjoy the added fiber you’ll be getting.



J Am Coll Nutr. 2000 Jun;19(3 Suppl):312S-319S.

ACS Chemistry for Life. “Whole grain cereals, popcorn rich in antioxidants, not just fiber, new research concludes”

JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Mar;175(3):373-84. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.6283.

Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Aug;98(2):594-619. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.067629. Epub 2013 Jun 26.

“The Impact of Whole Grains on Health” Today’s Dietitian. Vol. 15 No. 5 P. 44.


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