We’ve all heard that eating whole grains is healthier and can help with weight loss and maintenance and in this case, what you have heard is correct. Diets rich in whole grains have been shown to reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes, certain cancers, obesity and heart disease. Whole-grain diets also improve the health of the digestive tract by promoting the growth of healthy bacteria in the colon and improving regularity.
But why do whole grains offer all these benefits and what makes them so much better than their refined counterparts? It mainly has to do with what whole grains actually are and how they are processed, or rather the fact that they are processed much less than refined grains. A grain in its natural form is made up of three parts -the bran, the germ and the endosperm. In whole grains, all three parts are left intact whereas refined grains only contain the endosperm because the bran and germ are removed during processing. The bran and germ happen to be the parts of the grain that contain most of the protein, dietary fibre and nutrients which is essentially why whole grains are the healthier option. The nutrients include B vitamins, folate, selenium, antioxidants and trace elements like zinc, copper, iron and magnesium. The protein and dietary fibre keep you feeling full and satisfied longer as they are digested more slowly than refined grains. Whole grains are also much more flavourful and have more texture than refined grains and while these are attributes that may take some getting used to if you have been eating mostly refined grains all your life, when you get used to them you may realise that the nutty, earthy flavours and stronger texture make your meals and dishes more complex and enjoyable.
So, how can you tell if a product is whole grain? In Trinidad, there is no local regulatory board or council that sets any standard for products to meet to be considered ‘whole grain’ so determining if a product is whole grain requires some investigation of your own. You’ve got to read your labels and know what you are looking for. The best indicator is the ingredients list which should give a list of all the ingredients in the product in descending order by weight, meaning that the ingredient present in the greatest amount is listed first and so on.
There are two things you are looking for in the ingredients list –
- The word ‘whole’ must precede the grain e.g.’ whole wheat flour’ or ‘whole oats’.
- The whole grain should be the first ingredient on the list, or, if there is more than one whole grain included, they would be at the top of the ingredients list.
It is also important to remember that terms like ‘stone ground’, ‘multigrain’, ‘100%wheat’, ‘bran’, and ‘organic’ do not actually indicate that a product is whole grain. Think about it, ‘100% wheat’ says nothing about the type of wheat or how much or how little the wheat has been processed. A product can be 100% wheat made from refined white flour and it would be very accurate to print 100% wheat on the label. ‘Multigrain’ simply means that the product contains different types of grains but again, those grains can be in a refined form and can also be included in very small quantities. Reading the ingredients list is your best option, no matter what claims are printed on the rest of the package.
Imported products can be somewhat easier to decipher because countries like the USA and those in the European Union do have regulations and standards set for whole grains. For example, the US’s Whole Grain Council’s whole grain stamp shows how many grams of whole grain per serving is in the product or displays 100% is all the grain is whole grains. Also, the FDA approved health-claim that states ‘diets rich in whole grains and other plant foods and low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and some cancers’ is only allowed on products that have at least 51% whole grains ingredients by weight. However, keeping up with what all the stamps and claims mean may not be very practical, so again, take a few seconds to check the ingredients list when shopping for whole grains.
Now that you know how to find whole grains, the next step is actually incorporating them into your diet. The simplest way of course is to simply replace all refined grains in your meals with whole grains. For example, instead of cooking white rice, buy and cook brown rice. This seems simple enough but for some of us actually making the switch proves to be a more of a challenge, most often because we have to get accustomed to the taste and textural differences associated with whole grains. Here are a few tips on introducing whole grains into your diet.
- Mix ½ refined and ½ whole grains to ease yourself and your taste buds into the transition to a diet rich in whole grains. For example, when making rice, use 1 part white rice to 1 part brown rice. For pasta, replace half of the regular pasta with whole wheat pasta.
- Experiment with different whole grains and recipes. Many whole grains are ‘new’ to us (e.g. quinoa, bulgur wheat, rye, wild rice, brown rice etc.) and incorporating them into our diets is an opportunity to add much needed healthy variety to your everyday meals.
- Remember that popcorn is a whole grain! Make popcorn the old fashioned way and you have an easy whole grain snack to enjoy without any guilt (once you don’t add too much salt!)
- Replace 1/3 of the flour in your recipes with whole oats.
- Introduce your children to whole grains from an early age. Their first grains should be whole grains!
Once you’ve starting adding whole grains to your diet the only thing left is to make sure you are getting enough each day. The exact amount of any kind of grain recommended per day varies depending on factors such as age, gender, and level of physical activity. In general, adults need about 5-8 ounces of grains per day and you should aim for at least half of those to come from whole grains. As a point of reference, 1 oz. of grains is equivalent to about 1 slice of bread, ½ cup of rice or pasta or 1 cup of cereal. So let’s say you are aiming for 5 oz of grains in your diet per day. If you have a cup of whole grain cereal for breakfast, a sandwich made with two slices of whole grain bread for lunch, a snack with ½ cup of whole oats over yogurt and a ½ cup of brown rice with your dinner, you would have not only reached your grains goal for the day, but made all your grains whole grains! That’s very simple and do-able; and your heart and waistline will thank you if you make it a habit.
By: Gabrielle Lambie –Nutritionist