You’ve probably heard many times that whole grains are much better for you than refined ones, but it’s important to understand why. Whole grains are the complete package of health benefits, whereas the refined ones have been stripped of most of their valuable nutrients.
All whole grains have three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. The outer layer is the bran and is full of fiber as well as B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (beneficial plant chemicals). The germ is the core of the seed and is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. The endosperm is the interior layer that has carbohydrates, protein, and small amounts of some B vitamins and minerals.
Refined grains have both the bran and the germ stripped away, leaving only the endosperm. The reason this is done is that when you take away the fiber from the bran, the resulting grain is easier to chew and makes light and fluffy baked goods. Without the fat content of the germ, you also get a longer shelf life. Unfortunately, with processed wheat for example, you lose more than 50% of its B vitamins, 90% of vitamin E, and pretty much all of the fiber. Some processed grains are “enriched” by replacing some of the vitamins that were removed with nutrients that didn’t naturally occur in them.
Many studies have shown that consuming whole grains leads to better health and disease prevention, while refined carbs do the opposite. Some of the health benefits from eating whole grains include:
Heart health. Whole grains substantially lower total cholesterol, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides. Soluble fiber binds to cholesterol and drags it out of the body, like the beta glucans in oats. A meta-analysis of seven studies showed that people who ate 2.5 servings or more of whole grain foods per day were 21% less likely to have cardiovascular disease than those who ate less than 2 servings per week.
Diabetes. The fiber, nutrients, and phytochemicals in whole grains help improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, and they also slow down the absorption of food to prevent blood sugar spikes, all helping to reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. Refined grains, on the other hand, have a high glycemic index and glycemic load because of their lack of fiber and nutrients. Something as simple as substituting brown rice for white rice can lower your diabetes risk by 36%.
Cancer. More than 40 studies have shown that eating whole grains regularly reduces cancer risk. Antioxidants like vitamin E and selenium protect against the formation of carcinogens and suppress the growth of cancer cells. A review of four large studies showed that whole grains protect against colorectal cancer with a 21% lower risk.
Digestive health. The fiber in whole grains helps prevent constipation and diverticulosis. It also feeds the good bacteria in your gut, which is important for immunity and overall health.
Weight loss. The fiber from whole grains helps to keep you feeling fuller longer, so you eat less and control your weight better.
By eating whole grains instead of processed or enriched, you can reduce your overall risk of death from all causes by 15%. You should aim for getting at least 48 g of whole grain every day, which can equal around 3 – 6 servings, depending on the food. There are many different whole grains for you to choose from, but it’s important for you to make sure that you are getting the whole grain and it should be the first ingredient listed on the label. Some of the most commonly available whole grains include amaranth, barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, kamut, millet, quinoa, rye, oats, sorghum, spelt, teff, triticale, wheat berries, and wild rice.
Be mindful of the grains you’re eating and make them whole grain whenever possible. This includes whole grain breads, cereals, and pastas instead of processed. Replace white rice with quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, millet, barley, or bulgur. Bake with whole grain flours, starting out with a 50/50 mix to get used to the taste and texture, and gradually increasing the whole grain until you reach 100%. Remember that popcorn is a whole grain and is one of the healthiest snacks you can eat. Just don’t buy prepackaged microwave popcorn bags because the bags themselves can be coated with harmful chemicals, and the popcorn inside has a lot of unhealthy additives. Pop it yourself on your stove or in an air-popper and buy organic popcorn to make sure you’re avoiding GMO corn.
All plant foods are better whole, and as close to their natural state as possible, and that includes grains.