An increasing number of health-conscious people are including whole grains in their diets. Should you do the same? Is eating grain healthy for you?
Among all foods, cereal grains are considered the world’s single primary source of energy. Corn, rice, and wheat head the list of the grains most commonly eaten by man.
In spite of the extensive consumption of grain, people are divided in their beliefs about it. Others think that grain should form part of a healthy diet while others disagree.
It seems prudent to find out more about grains before deciding on anything.
What are grains?
Grains (also referred to as cereal grains) are tiny, solid and edible dry seeds that come from grass-like plants (or cereals). They are a major part of the diets of most countries.
Whole Grains and Refined Grains
Before you decide whether eating grain is healthy or not, you need to know the distinction between refined grains and whole grains.
Whole grains have three parts – bran, germ, and the endosperm.
Bran is the hard outer part of the grain. It has a lot of fiber, as well as some antioxidants and minerals.
Germ forms the core of the grain. It is the embryo, the part of the plant from where a new plant emerges. Containing fats, carbs, proteins, antioxidants, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients, it is crammed with nutrients.
Endosperm forms the largest section of the grain. It is made up mostly of starch, a form of carbohydrates, and some protein.
Examples of whole grains include whole wheat, brown rice, oats, sorghum, millet, barley, and rye. People are showing renewed interest in grains (what some people refer to as the grain renaissance) and we see new and heretofore unfamiliar grains like bulgur, freekeh, and wheat berries filling the grocery shelves.
Brown rice and popcorn are examples of whole grains used as single foods. Whole grains can also be found in food products like oatmeal, bran flakes, and other whole-grain cereals, as well as in whole wheat bread and buckwheat pancakes.
Some types of whole grains have more of certain nutrients while other types may be richer in other nutrients. Nutritionists suggest that you include a variety of whole grains in your diet so you get to enjoy a vast range of tastes, textures, and nutrients.
Refined grains are grains that go through a milling process that strips them of the bran and germ (the nutritious parts) and leaves only the endosperm behind.
Processing improves the texture of grains and prolongs their shelf life. However, by removing the bran and germ, it also takes away most of the grains’ nutrients, including most of its B vitamins, iron, and dietary fiber.
Without the bran and the germ, refined grains have nothing left to offer except the high-calorie, high-carb starch and traces of protein found in the endosperm.
Some manufacturers add iron and certain B vitamins back to the grains after processing and mark the refined grains as “enriched.” Fiber, however, isn’t added back.
Without fiber, refined grains are easily digested. The body is able to quickly change the carbs into glucose and use it for energy. “Easy” carbohydrates make the blood sugar shoot up and crash down soon after. When your blood sugar levels go down, you tend to go hungry again, to get food cravings and, as a result, to overeat — leading to weight gain.
Studies indicate that eating refined grains has adverse effects on your metabolism and may lead to problems like heart disease, insulin resistance, and diabetes.
Examples of refined grains include white bread, white rice, white flour, and degermed cornflower. A lot of desserts, crackers, pastries, bread, and cereals are made using refined grains.
Gluten and Grains
Some people are allergic to gluten (also called prolamins, a family of proteins) that is found in some grains like rye, barley, and wheat. This allergy can cause symptoms like fatigue, joint pain, and diarrhea.
Fortunately, most whole grains, including wild rice, brown rice, amaranth, buckwheat, oats, quinoa, sorghum, and corn are gluten-free. People who are gluten-sensitive will have no problem with these whole grains.
Nutrition from Whole Grains
The renewed interest in whole grains comes in the wake of the increasing number of studies that indicate that whole grains are good for you.
What nutrients do you get from whole grains – and how do they boost your health?
- Complex carbohydrates and fiber
Whole grains provide slow-release carbohydrates that give you a sense of fullness that lasts long. They help keep your energy levels stable long after you have eaten. They also regulate blood sugar levels.
By doing all these, whole grains help you regulate your appetite, control food cravings, and avoid overeating. Moreover, whole grains contain no saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol, making them a good addition to your diet if you want to lose weight over time.
Whole grains provide fiber that helps digestion, prevents constipation, and promotes the growth of healthy bacteria.
The complex carbohydrates and fiber in whole grains, unlike the carbs in refined grains, help you maintain efficient metabolism and keep your heart healthy.
Whole grains contain proteins which when combined with the proteins in peas, beans, peanuts, and lentils form complete proteins.
Protein helps in building and repairing tissues. It is essential for building muscles, bones, skin, blood, and cartilage.
- B Vitamins
Whole grains have high amounts of folate, riboflavin, thiamin, and niacin, B vitamins that do the body a lot of good.
B vitamins facilitate metabolism and helps in the efficient release of fat, carbohydrates, and protein from the food that you eat. These vitamins also help to make skin and hair healthier. They help maintain muscles and produce healthy red blood cells. They strengthen immunity and enhance nervous system function.
Rye, brown and wild rice, barley, quinoa, and whole grain wheat and oats count as some of the richest sources of these vitamins.
Whole grains contain phosphorus, an essential mineral which helps strengthen teeth and bones, repair and maintain cells, and regulate heartbeat.
Magnesium supplements are one of the more popular food supplements today because magnesium helps keep the body healthy in so many ways. It supports nerve function, maintains muscles, helps the cells produce protein, and strengthens immunity. Magnesium also helps the body absorb calcium, thus, helping keep the teeth and bones strong.
Whole grains are an excellent source of magnesium. Amaranth, quinoa, rye, millet, oats, and wheat are especially rich in magnesium.
- Iron and selenium
Iron is an important nutrient. It helps the body produce myoglobin and hemoglobin that make for healthy muscles and red blood cells. It keeps the immune system strong, helps sustain energy, and keeps the skin healthy and beautiful.
Selenium is another mineral that supports skin health. It also helps keep the thyroid and the immune system healthy.
Contrary to what most people think, iron and selenium are present not only in meat but in seeds, nuts, and whole grains as well. Whole grain wheat, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, barley, and amaranth are good sources of these nutrients.
Zinc is another mineral that helps the immune system to fight off diseases and heal wounds. It helps in the production of DNA and protein. It also strengthens the sense of smell and taste.
Manganese helps reduce oxidative stress. It helps the body metabolize amino acids, carbs, and cholesterol. It also helps the body to form and maintain healthy bone and cartilage.
Copper helps in the regulation of heart rate and blood pressure. It is also essential to produce melanin for the skin and hair.
- Plant compounds and antioxidants
Whole grains contain a variety of plant compounds and antioxidants that make for better health by preventing major diseases like diabetes, heart disease, inflammation, and even cancer. These compounds include ferulic and phytic acids, sulfur compounds, lignans, stanols, sterols, and polyphenols.
Is eating grains healthy for you?
Refined grains may not give you the nourishment that you need. They may even cause you to gain weight. Taken in large quantities, they may prove harmful to your health.
Whole grains, on the other hand, have a wide range of nutrients. They are nourishing and have positive effects on the body. They appear to have a decided advantage as an addition to your diet.