In a nation of fad diets, traditional whole foods are often wrongfully convicted. Such is the case of whole grains. The low-carb craze that surfaced in the mid 90’s, thanks largely to Dr. Atkins, has left many of us confused and even fearful of anything resembling a carbohydrate. Just looking at a piece of bread can cause anxiety and an instant feeling of guilt. But it is the source of these carbohydrates that should be of the most concern.
Our diet consists of three macronutrients – proteins, fats and carbohydrates which all perform essential roles in the body. Carbohydrates are the bodies main source of energy. They provide the fuel needed for all activities ranging from endurance running to the simple act of breathing. It is recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that 45%to 65% of our daily calories come from carbohydrates.
That being said, not all carbs are created equal. Most often carbohydrates envoke visions of bread baskets and fancy pasta dishes. However, there are many sources of carbohydrates. Most carbs are actually naturally occurring in plant based foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and beans. Whole grains are perhaps the most commonly misunderstood of all carbohydrates.
Whole grains include grains such as wheat, rice, oats, barley, quinoa, rye and corn. Even popcorn is a whole grain – yipee! Whole grains are “good carbs” which are absorbed slowly by the body providing sustained and high quality energy. Whole grains are made of three parts:
- Bran – the protective outer skin that contains antioxidants, B vitamins & fiber
- Germ – the embryo (can sprout into a new plant) that contains B vitamins, protein, minerals and healthy fats
- Endosperm – the largest portion of the kernel consisting of starchy carbohydrates, protein & small amounts of vitamins and minerals
When whole grains are refined, the bran and the germ are removed leaving only the endosperm. This results in the loss of fiber, protein and at least 17 key nutrients. Because refined grains are nutritionally worthless, they are required to be enriched. However enriching replaces only 5 of the nutrients and at insufficient quantities to compare to the grain’s natural state. What we DO get left with from refined grains is one big package of starch.
Refined grains have been stripped of their valuable fiber and vitamins, leaving only the “bad carbs”. Fiber is essential in slowing down the absorption of these carbohydrates. Without the naturally occurring fiber, refined grains turn into sugar rapidly. The result is the 2:00 sugar crash, excessive fat storage and weight gain.
So what are refined grains? Unfortunately most grains available at your grocery store and favorite restaurants are highly refined. Whole wheat is refined into white flour to produce white breads. Durum wheat is refined into semolina to make white pasta. More refined grains include white rice, oat bran and cornstarch. Beware of manipulative marketing tactics by food manufacturers labeling their products as wheat bread, multi-grain and even white wheat as these are NOT whole grains. Refined grains are the “bad carbs” that should be avoided or eaten in moderation only.
Whole grains however are “good carbs” and are an important part of our daily diet. The fiber found in whole grains supports good colon health and keeps waste moving out of the body. A diet rich in whole grains aids in weight loss and weight control. Evidence has shown that consuming whole grains on a daily basis greatly reduces risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity.