Remember the good old days when you could eat all the pasta you wanted and still feel virtuous? Bread, potatoes and pasta are all complex carbohydrates - the foods nutritionists say should be the foundation of a healthy diet. Turns out, there’s more to the story. Complex carbohydrates are truly the preferred fuel for the brain and muscles and are very important in a healthy diet. However, a majority of Americans get most of their complex carbohydrates from refined grains!
“Refined,” when referring to processed carbohydrates, means they have been stripped of their fiber and the many nutrients now known to be cancer fighters, critical for heart health, helping to stabilize blood sugar and even enhance bone health.
Necessary nutrients like Vitamin E, magnesium, boron, folic acid, zinc and phytochemicals like lignans, phytoestrogens and phenolic acids are all present in these great unrefined whole grains.
If whole grains are so healthy, why do an estimated 80 percent of Americans eat them less than once a day? For one thing, many do not even know what whole grains are! Whole grains are defined as grains that contain the completed kernel (all three parts):
- Bran is packed with fiber and B vitamins.
- Endosperm contains carbohydrates and protein.
- Germ is rich with B vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. Refined grains have most of the bran and germ removed.
Do You Know Your Grains? Test Yourself
- Which breads are usually all or mostly whole grain?
- (a) whole wheat
- (b) multi-grain
- (c) rye
- (d) pumpernickel
- Which grains are whole?
- (a) bulgur
- (b) quinoa
- (c) couscous
- (d) oatmeal
- What’s the most nutritious grain?
- (a) corn meal
- (b) millet
- (c) quinoa
- (d) oatmeal
- a. Whole wheat refers to the whole complete wheat shaft. In theory, multi-grain, rye and pumpernickel breads can be whole grain - you must check the labels though. If it lists one of these whole grains first, it usually is. If it says made with enriched or wheat flour, multi-grain flours or pumpernickel flours, then it is mostly refined grain.
- b,d. Quinoa and oatmeal are whole grains. Bulgur and couscous may also be but check for the whole grain wording on the label.
- c. Quinoa has been a staple food to the natives of the South American Andes since 3000 BC. Quinoa has the highest protein content of any grain. It is one of the grains highest in calcium, iron, copper, magnesium, Vitamin E, phosphorus and B vitamins. Quinoa is great for a vegetarian diet because of lysine and methomine, two amino acids which are generously supplied by this grain and notably low in vegetarian diets. Quinoa has a delicious nutty flavor and crunchy texture.
Whole Grain Health Benefits
Lower risk of heart disease
So far, it’s largely the fiber in whole grains that has caught the researcher’s attention. The American Journal of Public Health (89:1999) reported that in a significant study of 38,000 women who ate at least eight servings of whole grains per week had a 15 percent less chance of heart disease than those women who did not. Most common grains eaten were whole grain bread, oatmeal and 100% bran-type cereals.
The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA 281, 1999) reported recently that women who consumed 22 grams of fiber had a 47 percent lower heart disease risk than women who had less fiber in their diets. Fiber from whole grains was thought to be partly responsible due to the Vitamin E, magnesium, folic acid and phytochemical content.
A similar study in the Circulation Journal (94, 1996) revealed that 22,000 men eating 35 grams of fiber daily had a 31 percent decrease in the risk of heart disease. Harvard physician Dr. Willett and his colleagues indicated that in addition to fiber, whole grains offer key antioxidants like zinc, selenium, copper, manganese and Vitamin E which may contribute to the heart health benefit.
Diets high in whole grains worldwide have been shown to lower the risk for many types of cancer, namely colon, breast and prostate cancers. Researchers indicate that whole grains provide so many phytochemicals that have “cancer fighting” abilities at the cell level to keep any potential cancer cells in check (Journal of National Cancer Institute, 82, 1990; Nutrition & Cancer, 27, 1997).
Improved diabetes regulation and stabilizing blood sugar for weight loss
In general, less refined foods like intact whole grains and legumes are digested more slowly and enter the bloodstream at a more steady rate, thus they are called “low glycemic” and seem to dampen the insulin response thus putting less stress on the body. In his numerous studies, Dr. Willett has found 2.5 times the risk for diabetes in people who consume low-fiber, high glycemic foods like white bread, pasta and white sugar products. He reports the magnesium, chromium and other key insulin nutrients that come with whole grains probably contribute to the benefit of diabetes prevention (JAMA 268; 1992).
For weight management, research has repeatedly proven that people who consume a less refined diet and emphasize whole grains, fruit and vegetable foods have a lower incidence of obesity and weight fluctuations.
Help bowel regularity
The general consensus in research is that bran and other whole grain fiber is beneficial for the digestive tract and regular elimination. The fiber in bran and the like increases bulking, reduces transit time and reduces pressure in the colon. Refined grains do not. Estimates indicate that over 30 percent of people older than age 45 and 60 percent over the age of 85 have colon problems of which whole grains could be beneficial.
Remember when adding whole grains and fiber to your diet, start with small portions (1/4 to 1/2 cup) to slowly introduce these great grains to your system for better tolerance and drink plenty of water!
The wholesome grain will enrich not only the nutrient content of your diet but the texture and taste are a wonderful detour from bland, refined grains.
Cooking with Grains
There are three ways to consume grains:
- They can be sprouted and eaten;
- Cooked as any starch;
- Ground into a flour and added to baking.
Below is a chart for a new way for cooking grains.
||Water or Stock* (cups)
||Simmer for (mins)
||Let stand (mins)
*Use vegetable, chicken or beef stock, which can add more flavor, especially if the grain is for a side dish.
Taken from book: Recipes from An Ecological Kitchen by Lorna Sass, 1992.
Top Five Healthiest Grains
- Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah)
- Buckwheat Groats (when roasted called Kasha)
- Millet (considered to be one of the least allergenic and most easily digestible grains)
Other recognized whole grains are oats and oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, corn meal, wheat berries and whole wheat macaroni and spaghetti.
The information listed above has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is meant for educational purposes and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. Please consult your healthcare provider for guidance and medical advice.