Grains are a staple in most people’s diets, but not every grain is the healthiest choice. Grains, like many foods, have some healthy varieties and some less-healthy varieties. You might have heard that switching from refined grains to whole grains can have a variety of positive effects on your health, and you might be wondering why this is.
Why do our bodies need grains?
Grains provide us with carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide us with glucose, which our bodies break down and convert into energy. Whole grains also have fiber, which helps your digestion, regulates blood sugar, lowers cholesterol, and balances the gut bacteria.
What are the different types of grains?
There are two main types of grains, which vary according to how much they’ve been processed.
- Enriched grains: These have been milled but nutrients have been added to them. Some enriched grains are fortified, which means that nutrients that weren’t in the grain originally were added in later.
- Whole grains: These grains are unrefined, unmilled, and have not had any of their nutrients stripped away through milling. They contain the ‘entire grain,’ whereas refined and enriched grains lost nutritional components in the milling process.
Why are whole grains healthier than refined grains?
The milling process removes nutrients from grains, so refined grains only have a fraction of the nutrients that whole grains contain. Compared to refined and enriched grains, whole grains have a number of preferable health benefits, including:
- A healthy amount of bran and fiber, which helps lower cholesterol and improves digestion
- They take longer to break down, which keeps blood sugar steady during digestion (versus the spike in blood sugar that you are more likely to experience when you eat a refined grain), helping you feel fuller for a longer amount of time
- Helping to keep blood clots away
- Certain phytochemicals from plants and minerals that may help prevent some cancers, contribute to lower rates of cardiovascular disease, and lower the risk of diabetes
Are all whole grains healthy?
Some are healthier than others. Unfortunately, a lot of processed foods claim to be healthy because they have whole grains – but often they also include added sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and refined flour. Foods that claim to be “seven grain” or “multigrain” are also not often as healthy as true whole grains. And grain-products (like bread) that are brown aren’t necessarily whole grain, either.
How can you find the healthy whole grains?
When you’re looking for whole grains, make sure the ingredient list uses the word “whole” before the name of the grain – for example, “whole wheat.” It’s also a good idea to look for whole grain foods with at least a full serving of fiber – that’s about ½ to 3 grams of fiber for every 16 grams of whole grain.
What’s a serving size of whole grains?
Some examples of serving sizes are:
- 1 slice of whole grain bread
- ½ cup of brown rice or whole wheat pasta
- 1 cup of ready-to-eat whole grain breakfast cereal
- 1 6-inch (15 cm) whole wheat tortilla
How many carbohydrates do we need in a day?
Generally, people need between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates per day. Experts recommend that carbohydrates make up about 45 to 65% of the overall total calories you consume every day. Ideally, half or more of your daily carbohydrate intake would be whole grains.
How can you add whole grains into your diet?
Consuming more whole grains doesn’t have to be hard. The easiest way to get more whole grains is to start switching refined grains products with whole grain ones. So if you normally eat crackers, cereal, or bread that’s refined, try purchasing and eating ones that are made with whole grains.
Every single swap you make to whole grains helps. This means that even if you swap out just one refined grain tortilla for a whole grain, you’ll be doing your body good!
You could also try experimenting with new grains, if you’re not feeling enthusiastic about the ones you know. Quinoa, bulgur, and millet are examples of some grains that you could try to add to your meals, to replace items like instant oatmeal, grits, and white rice.
Your goal doesn’t have to be eating only whole grains for the rest of your life, and it’s fine to enjoy refined carbohydrates every so often, but consuming mostly whole grains is an amazing way to boost your energy levels, improve your mood, stay fuller for longer amounts of time, and to keep your body functioning at its optimal level. Eventually, you might just find that you can’t really taste the difference between refined grains and whole grains, or, even better, that you prefer whole grains.
- “Ch. 17: Nutrition During Pregnancy.” ACOG. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Apr 2015. Web.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Whole grains: Hearty options for a healthy diet.” MayoClinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, Jul 2014. Web.
- “Whole grains.” Harvard. The President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2017. Web.