“Brown rice please”. Those may be words you thought you’d never say. Or at least the words my boyfriend thought he’d never say, until I took him to a 18-day lifestyle program with lectures back to back about the benefits of eating a whole, plant-based food diet—now he’s a converted man.

Why Whole Grains?

Grains are a core component of a healthy diet. They are good sources of complex carbohydrate and provide essential nutrients such as vitamin E, thiamin, iron, and magnesium, just to list a few. In addition, they are loaded with fiber, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. Now put these precious gems through a mill (to make white rice or white flour etc.) and you end up with 80% less fiber and 75% less phytochemicals. Yes, a sad story indeed.

It is recommended by the USDA that at least half of all grains in the diet be whole grains. Whole grains are grains that have not had their bran and germ removed by milling. Examples include:

  • brown rice
  • wheat berries
  • barley
  • bulgur
  • quinoa
  • millet
  • oats
  • popcorn

The Anatomy of the Grain

whole grain info

Grains have three major components: the bran, germ, and endosperm. The bran is the outermost layer of the seed and contains the most fiber. The endosperm, also known as the kernel, makes up the bulk of the grain and contains a small amount of vitamins and minerals. The germ is the innermost part of the seed and contains the highest nutrient content. During the milling process, the bran and germ are removed, leaving a refined grain with less fiber and less nutrients.

What Does The Research Show?

 Cardiovascular Disease

Eating whole grains instead of refined grains can substantially lower total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL or bad) cholesterol, triglycerides, and insulin levels. In the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, results showed women who ate 2 to 3 servings of whole grain products each day were 30% less likely to have a heart attack or die from heart disease over a 10-year period versus those who ate less than 1 serving per day. In a meta-analysis of seven major studies, cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, or the need for a procedure to bypass or open a clogged artery) was 21% less likely in people who ate 2.5 servings or more of whole grain products per day compared to those who ate less than 2 servings a week.

Type 2 Diabetes

In addition to cardiovascular benefits, the results from the Nurses’ Health Study showed individuals who ate five or more servings of white rice per week had a 17% greater risk of diabetes than those who ate white rice less than one time per month. Those who ate the most brown rice (two or more servings per week) had 11% lower risk of diabetes than those who rarely ate it.

Cancer

Results from a five-year study containing 500,000 men and women showed eating whole grains, separate from dietary fiber, was moderately associated with lower colorectal cancer risk.

“Whole Grain” Doesn’t Always Mean Healthy

I should probably clarify that there is a difference between eating whole grains and eating whole grain products. For example, wheat berries vs. whole wheat bread or whole wheat crackers. Let me explain. When you purchase grains in their whole grain form (such as those listed above), you can be assured you are getting the most optimal nutrition that a whole grain can offer. Fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals—you get them all. Whole grain products on the other hand, may not guarantee you the same. For one, through the production process, the product will lose some of the nutritional benefits such as phytochemicals. In addition, processing will have done some of the work your body’s digestive system should have done. Of course, when choosing between whole grain products and refined products, whole grain products are far superior.

Did I mention some whole grain products may actually have minimal amount of whole grain in it? Reading food labels is key. Food manufacturers can easily label their products as whole grain even when the majority of the product is from a refined grain. Be sure to read the ingredient list to get a better idea of what you’re buying. Or look for “100% whole grain” or “100% whole wheat”. And of course, look for other indicators that will show whether product is a good choice or not such as fat, sodium, and sugar content. Check out our article How to Read a Nutrition Label for more information on making this decision.

 

References:

Identifying Whole Grain Products. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2016, from http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/identifying-whole-grain-products

Liu S, Stampfer MJ, Hu FB, et al. Whole-grain consumption and risk of coronary heart disease: results from the Nurses’ Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 1999;70:412-9.

Mellen PB, Walsh TF, Herrington DM. Whole grain intake and cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2008;18:283-90.

de Munter JS, Hu FB, Spiegelman D, Franz M, van Dam RM. Whole grain, bran, and germ intake and risk of type 2 diabetes: a prospective cohort study and systematic review. PLoS Med. 2007;4:e261.

Sun Q, Spiegelman D, van Dam RM, et al. White rice, brown rice, and risk of type 2 diabetes in US men and women. Arch Intern Med. 2010;170:961-9.

Schatzkin A, Mouw T, Park Y, et al. Dietary fiber and whole-grain consumption in relation to colorectal cancer in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1353-60.

Strayer L, Jacobs DR, Jr., Schairer C, Schatzkin A, Flood A. Dietary carbohydrate, glycemic index, and glycemic load and the risk of colorectal cancer in the BCDDP cohort. Cancer Causes Control. 2007;18:853-63


About the Author

Ashley Kim

“Our bodies are our gardens—our wills are our gardeners.” – William Shakespeare

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