Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains

Try on some new healthy habits without grappling with a daunting obscure health recommendation to eat more whole grains.

I like trying new grains in place of brown rice. This way you’ll try on some new healthy habits without grappling with a daunting obscure health recommendation to eat more whole grains.

Since prehistoric times, grain products have been one of the basic foodstuffs of agrarian societies with almost every culture having a staple grain. Some examples of whole grains include barley, bulgur, faro, freekah, millet, oats, quinoa and wheat berries.

Whole grains have long been associated with lower risk of chronic diseases. The reason whole grains are so much healthier than the processed “white” counterpart is because they’re not stripped of the natural and nutrient-dense bran and germ. While this process of “refining” creates white and fluffy rice and flours, the products are nutrient-depleted with little health value. White rice and white flour products lose about 25 percent protein and 17 essential nutrients according to the Whole Grains Council. There is a 17 percent higher risk of diabetes associated with eating five or more servings of white rice per week than eating white rice less than once a month. When on cancer treatment, steroids are often used. Steroids plus the loss of protein and fiber in processed grains, can make you susceptible to high blood sugar. Lost nutrients can impair the immune system too. Lost nutrients include B vitamins, vitamin E, magnesium, selenium, copper, manganese. Whole grains are rich in fiber to help slow digestion and prevent damaging blood sugar and insulin spikes to help create an anti-inflammatory environment to support cancer cell death.

We often focus too much on how many carbohydrates we should eat instead of also considering the quality, which is absolutely essential for health.

Whole grains also have an impact on long-term lifespan. Per Harvard, eating whole grains is associated with up to a 15 percent lower mortality--particularly cardiovascular disease related mortality. For each serving of whole grains, overall mortality dropped by 5 percent and up to 9 percent for CVD related mortality! This is especially important for cancer patients who have received radiation to the chest like those who have been treated for breast, esophagus, and lung cancers among others.

Returning to whole grains and other less-processed sources of carbohydrates and cutting back on white grains improves health in a myriad of ways. The fibers make it more difficult to digest and absorb starches into glucose; soluble fibers help lower cholesterol; insoluble fibers help bulk stool and move waste and toxins through the digestive tract; promote natural anticoagulants to prevent small blood clots; collection of antioxidants to prevent LDL cholesterol from oxidizing; providing undigestable resistant starches to help promote healthy gut microbiome; reduce risk for heart disease and diabetes; hundreds of phytochemicals that haven’t even yet been identified and may play yet undiscovered roles in health.

Current U.S. guidelines call for people to aim for half their daily grains from whole grain sources but if nothing else, this new Harvard study shows that we should try to make all the grains we eat whole.

It’s important to avoid conflating whole grain, multigrain and whole wheat because they are very different, only two of which are healthy. No matter which type of grain you’re buying, always look for the key word, “whole.” Even if something is multigrain, meaning the product is made using more than one type of cereal grain, it can still be processed, bleached and refined. Continue to check the ingredient section to confirm that the multiple grains are indeed “whole.” Look for a fiber content of at least 3g per serving and for the first ingredient to be a whole grain.

Types to Try:

  • Barley and oats are great sources of beta-glucan soluble fibers to promote healthier cholesterol levels and the carbs it provides are absorbed slowly into the bloodstream making for steady kind of energy. Barley can significantly reduce glucose and insulin responses especially in people with diabetes. Barley is rich in minerals like selenium, iron, magnesium and zinc. Add it soups, stews or even as a hot breakfast cereal.
  • Bulgur is a type of wheat that includes the germ and the brain giving it a nutty flavor. It’s loaded with lutein, niacin and zinc. I like to use this as an alternative to brown rice in stir-fries or as a side dish.
  • Oatmeal can actually cause your brain to produce serotonin, a feel-good chemical that helps sooth stress. The beta-glucan fibers, like barley, provide a satisfying feeling of fullness. I like to make a big batch of steel-cut on the weekend, store it in the fridge and microwave it on busy mornings. Choose steel cut or rolled oats over instant varieties to avoid those craving-inducing added sugars and artificial sweeteners.
  • Farro, an Italian grain looks like brown rice but its flatter and has a chewier texture with a nuttier flavor. Also packed with nutrients like magnesium, B vitamins and zinc, it’s on the list of one my power starches. I always end up taking leftovers for lunch the next day.
  • Quinoa is an ancient grain gaining a lot of recent attention. Because quinoa is technically a seed, it also provides twice the protein than most other grain products. It also provides the most quercetin, an antioxidant, than any other grain. I love quinoa because it’s so low maintenance and can be cooked in a cinch.

Eating tips:

  • Grains are so versatile. The more time you spend in the kitchen, the more you will feel comfortable using grains without recipes.
  • Grains hold up to a lot of flavor so experiment with herbs and spices, too.
  • Add to soup for hearty texture.
  • Cool cooked grain and use in place of pasta in salad.
  • Create a risotto style dish with barley and mushrooms.
  • Make a batch of grain salads to customize over the week. A great way to use leftover odds and ends in the fridge like grilled vegetables, roasted chicken, beans.

Amanda Bontempo, MS RD CSO CDN

Twitter @amandabontempo

Instagram @amandabonbon