The Value of Whole Grains
The rise in popularity of diets such as Paleo and Atkins has cast doubt on the value of whole grain foods in the diet. In this article we will look at the advantages and disadvantages of whole grains to determine whether you should be making them a part of your clean-eating, daily diet.
What are whole grains?
Whole grains are cereals that contain all of the edible parts of the grain, including the bran, germ and endosperm. In contrast, refined grains have had the bran and germ removed before the grain is further refined by mixing, bleaching or brominating.
Types of whole grains include whole-wheat, oats, popcorn, brown rice, whole rye, quinoa, whole spelt, brown rice, wild rice and buckwheat.
Benefits of whole grains
Whole grains are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrate. They contain key vitamins and minerals such as B vitamins, folic acid, omega 3, vitamin E and selenium. According to the Whole Grains Council1, the advantages of eating whole grains include:
- reduced stroke risk 30-36%
- reduced type 2 diabetes risk 21-30%
- reduced heart disease risk 25-28%
- better weight maintenance
Other benefits indicated by recent studies include:
- reduced risk of asthma
- healthier carotid arteries
- reduction of inflammatory disease risk
- lower risk of colorectal cancer
- healthier blood pressure levels
- less gum disease and tooth loss
Studies have shown that whole grains are rich in phytochemicals, natural plant compounds that protect cells from potentially cancerous damage. Research also suggests that other compounds in wholegrains such as antioxidants, phenols, lignans and saponins, are also linked to a lower cancer risk2. In particular, eating whole grains in the diet has been linked with lower risk of colorectal cancer3.
The bran and germ present in whole grains slows down the conversion of starch into glucose. For this reason, most whole grains are low glycaemic index (GI) and help to maintain a steady blood sugar level rather than the sharp spikes seen with refined grains4.
The main argument for removing grains from the diet (whole or refined), is that if you are intolerant or allergic to them, they can trigger intestinal disorder and, leaky gut syndrome, leading to chronic inflammation in the body.
Scientific studies have shown that daily consumption of grains can cause chronic inflammation in some individuals5, however it is unclear how many individuals are intolerant to the compounds present in grains. Intolerance or allergy to whole grains is usually caused by gluten, which is found in many types of grain. People suffering from coeliac disease are allergic to gluten. This is a serious condition that can be diagnosed by your doctor and includes symptoms such as weight loss, diarrhoea, joint pain and acid reflux. Coeliac patients must strictly avoid all gluten.
It has been estimated that between 5-10% of people are intolerant to gluten at some level6. Symptoms of intolerance can include gastrointestinal discomfort, headaches, fatigue and joint pain. Since it is difficult to diagnose a wheat/gluten intolerance, the best way to determine if you yourself are affected, is to cut gluten out of your diet for a month and see if you notice any improvement in your ailments. This should always be done with the support and guidance of your doctor.
If you are not allergic or intolerant to whole grains, then the health benefits or eating them far outweigh any reason to remove them from your diet. In addition to being full of nutrients, whole grains are also filling and often reasonably priced, making them a valuable addition to your daily diet.
Check your labels
There are a few things to look out for when buying whole grains. Just because a product is labelled as a whole grain, does not mean that the product is good for you. For example, many wholegrain cereals are also full of refined sugar. In addition to this, some manufacturers use colourings to dye refined white flour and make it appear to be whole-wheat when it is not. Always check your food labels.
There are some simple food swaps that you can make to easily switch to whole grains.
Swap white pasta, rice, bread and flour for unrefined, whole grain versions. Use whole grain wheat or spelt flour in cooking, or swap half of your white flour for whole grain flour. Try risottos and pilaf with brown rice, quinoa, barley or millet.
Whole grains have value
Unless you are intolerant or allergic to whole grains, there is no reason to remove them from your diet. Research has shown that whole grains are valuable in reducing cancer risk and diabetes, and can help with weight maintenance. Try making some simple swaps in your diet to increase the amount of whole grains you consume on a daily basis.
About the author:
Sonia Nicholas is a Biomedical Scientist and Freelance Clinical Science Writer & Editor. She has been working in the field of clinical science for fifteen years.
Sonia believes that everyone can improve their health by eating a clean diet – a claim that scientific research increasingly supports. Sonia also believes that healthy, clean eating is accessible to all and doesn’t have to be an expensive lifestyle choice.
All of the information on The Green Apple Club website is in line with current, recommended Government guidelines. All of the articles are evidence based and fully scientifically referenced.
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