The Whole Grain Lowdown
Grains were no doubt the very first foods ancient agriculturalists learned to cultivate -- and until just a century ago whole grains were the basis of most diets. People did not eat refined grains. But in the 1870s technology, in the form of the roller mill, came into play, creating white flour. This had some advantages: refined grains stay fresh longer than whole grains, which tend to get rancid, especially in hot weather. Still, in this instance, we'd all be better off if we went back to the past.
As matters stand, Americans seldom eat whole grains. They buy white bread, and restaurants (plain and fancy) serve white. Most breads labeled "rye," "pumpernickel," "multi-grain," "stone-ground," "7-grain," and "oatmeal" are merely white bread dressed up to look like whole grains. If "wheat flour" is the first ingredient listed (never mind if it's enriched, bromated, stone-ground, or whatever), it's refined white flour.
These days bread is usually the first food to be forbidden in weight-loss diets (eat the burger, throw away the bun). Through the ages bread has often been blamed for weight gain, which is unfair, especially when it comes to whole-grain varieties. Some low-carb regimens, such as the South Beach diet, do recommend whole grains -- a step in the right direction.
Here's the lowdown on whole grains:
How many daily servings should you eat?
At least half the grain products you eat should be whole grain -- three or more servings every day, according to the government's new dietary guidelines.
Isn't that a lot for a person trying to lose weight?
Not really. A serving is small, just 1 ounce -- that is, 1 slice of whole-wheat bread, 1/2 whole-wheat English muffin, and 1/2 to 1 cup of most ready-to-eat whole-grain breakfast cereals. For cooked grains -- oatmeal, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, cornmeal mush, or polenta -- a serving is 1/2 cup. Each of these servings contains just 70 to 110 calories.
Why are whole grains better?
Whole-grain products contain the whole kernel, consisting of the outer shell (bran), the seed (germ), and the soft endosperm. Milling the wheat removes the bran and the germ, leaving the starchy endosperm. The bran and germ supply most of the vitamin E, B vitamins, zinc, selenium, copper, iron, manganese, and magnesium. They are also high in fiber . All whole grains contain some insoluble fiber (good for the digestive tract) and some soluble fiber (which helps promote healthy blood cholesterol levels). Oats, barley, and rye are particularly rich in soluble fiber. Whole grains also contain phytochemicals such as rutin (a flavonoid that may reduce the risk of heart disease), lignans, various antioxidants, and other beneficial substances.
What health benefits do whole grains have?
Eating whole grains is linked to a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, possibly because of the cholesterol-lowering properties of soluble fiber, because of the extra vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, and also because whole grains take the place of various less healthy foods. Wheat bran has a higher antioxidant capacity than refined wheat. Whole grains help prevent spikes in blood sugar, helping insulin do its job, which is one way they may help protect against diabetes. Whole grains may help reduce the risk of colon cancer, and also possibly cancers of the mouth and stomach. Fiber helps prevent constipation and diverticulitis.
If the bread is brown and rough textured, is it "whole grain?"
Not always. Look for "whole wheat," not simply "wheat." (There is such a thing as "hard white wheat" -- lighter than regular wheat and now found in tortillas and some noodles. It's whole-grain, too.) Look for "whole rye," "whole-grain pumpernickel," and so on. Oats are oats -- all whole, even the finely ground, instant type. But watch out for "oatmeal bread," which usually contains refined wheat flour and only a small amount of oats. Other whole grains: corn and popcorn, as well as brown, red, or black rices. Some but not all basmatis and flavored rices are whole grain. Couscous is often refined wheat, but you can find whole-grain varieties. There are also buckwheat groats (kasha), millet, amaranth, and quinoa. Barley may be whole; pearled and scotch barley are refined.
How can you be certain?
There's no substitute for reading the ingredients list. And check the fiber content. For example, a slice of whole rye will have at least 3 grams of fiber, a slice of refined-wheat rye, 1 gram or less. An industry-sponsored "whole grains" stamp or seal will soon start appearing on qualifying products. It may save you some squinting at the fine print.
How can you boost your intake without boosting calories?
Substitute whole grains, such as brown rice, kasha, or bulgur, for white rice or refined pasta. Start the day with whole grains in some form. Ask for whole-wheat bread when you order a sandwich. Add whole barley to soups and stews. Cut down on foods made from refined flour.
Still, wouldn't you be better off eliminating grains entirely in order to lose weight?
Not at all. A study conducted at Harvard and other centers found that an increase in whole grains was linked with a reduction in long-term weight gain. For each 1-ounce increase in daily whole-grain intake, weight gain over eight years was reduced by about 2 pounds. Why? Perhaps because whole grains have slightly fewer calories, ounce for ounce, than refined grains. Moreover, the extra fiber in whole grains may give people a feeling of fullness, so that they consume fewer calories over all.
What about crackers?
Most -- including "stoned-wheat crackers," "wheat thins," and other wheat-y sounding treats -- are made from refined flour. Whole-wheat crackers (such as flatbreads) tend to be heavier.
How should you store whole grains?
The germ of the kernel contains healthy polyunsaturated oils, which can turn rancid. Thus, whole-wheat flour, wheat germ, and cornmeal should be refrigerated. Breads, oats, brown rice, barley, and most other whole grains can be stored at room temperature.
UC Berkeley Wellness Letter, March 2005