With the rise of “gluten free” foods and popular diets that exclude grains completely, it’s causing us to wonder – will avoiding grains lead to good health?
The USDA has maintained it’s “balanced diet” stance and recommends that adults consume roughly 6 ounces of grains each day. Because the quality of grains and grain products vary greatly, following this recommendation can either lead to a well-nourished diet or to a high-calorie, low-nutrient diet. To help clear things up, here’s a breakdown of the different types of grain products you’ll find at the store:
- Refined Grains: Refined grains have the bran and germ layers removed during processing. Only the endosperm remains, which is mostly comprised of refined starch. Refined grains have a high glycemic load and therefore are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. Examples include white breads and pasta, crackers, baked goods, white flour, and breakfast cereals.
- Whole Grains: Whole grains, or foods made from them, contain all the essential parts of the grain seed; in other words, they contain 100% of the original kernel, which includes the bran, germ, and endosperm. This is notable because the bran and germ contain significantly more fiber, B vitamins, calcium, iron, and protein than the endosperm. Milled whole grains go through a process in which the bran, endosperm, and germ layers are milled into a fine flour to make whole grain pasta, breakfast cereals, and breads.
- Intact Grains: Intact grains are grains straight from the plant, but with their husks removed. All three of the kernel layers must be intact to be considered an “intact” grain. These grains are easily identifiable as they look like a grain: oats, barley, brown rice, quinoa, faro, millet, etc.
WHICH GRAINS ARE BEST?
The USDA recommends that at least half of your grain intake should come from whole grains instead of refined grains. Nutritionists recommend that we reduce our intake of refined grains even more, reserving them only for special occasions. This is because refined grains are quickly digested into simple sugars and absorbed into your bloodstream, causing blood sugar levels to spike and quickly crash. Diets high in refined grains have been linked to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and obesity.
Intact grains, on the other hand, contain a richer nutritional profile of antioxidants, B vitamins, proteins, minerals, fiber, and healthful fats than grains that have been stripped of the bran and germ layers through processing. The high fiber content of intact grains slows their digestion, reducing blood sugar spikes and increasing satiety (the feeling of fullness).
When you hear recommendations to include more “whole grains” in your diet, it’s actually intended for you to increase your “intact grains.” We’re not sure why, but our bodies react to processed whole grain products more like refined grain products than they do intact grains. In general, processing changes a grain’s calorie density and glycemic load. The calorie density of a processed whole grain product (e.g. whole grain bread) is similar to that of white bread, and the final product of a milled or refined grain has a much higher glycemic load than its intact grain counterpart.
WHAT ABOUT DIETS THAT AVOID GRAINS COMPLETELY?
Some popular diets like the Paleo Diet or the Keto Diet recommend avoiding grains completely. Some people have experienced benefit from cutting grains out of their diet. Grains are not necessarily essential to a nutritious diet as they don’t contain any unique nutrients that we can’t get from other foods. For example, you can get fiber from beans, nuts, and crunchy vegetables; carbohydrates from beans, sweet potatoes, and other vegetables and fruit; B vitamins from meat, eggs, dairy, and nuts; etc. (some popular diets limit these alternative foods as well and may result in nutrient deficiencies). For most people though, it’s not necessary to avoid grains completely; switching from refined grains to intact grains will dramatically reduce disease risk and provide a sustainable source of carbohydrates.
HOW TO INCLUDE INTACT GRAINS IN YOUR DIET:
- Add wild rice or brown rice to your favorite soup
- Add 3/4 cup uncooked oats for each pound of ground beef or turkey when making meatballs, burgers, or meatloaf
- Make brown or wild rice pilaf as a side dish
- Enjoy whole grain salads made with bulgur or quinoa
- Mix quinoa with roasted vegetables for a side dish or serve with an egg for breakfast