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The Whole Grind on Whole Grains

Everyone’s been there, standing under the halogen lights in the grocery store confronted by an overwhelming selection of breads. All you wanted was a substrate for your daily sandwich but instead, you’re bombarded by a slew of bright packages each vying for your attention. Whole grain, multigrain, rye, pumpernickel, low fat, reduced calorie, no high fructose corn syrup, no trans-fat: what does any of this means for your potential pb and J?
The key to picking out a healthy loaf of bread is to decode the label. In a perfect world, you would probably just mix up a batch of whole grain flour and pop it into your bread maker and problem solved; you know exactly what you’re eating. However, the benefits of baking your own bread will be blogged about later. Today, we’re going to focus on your plan of attack in the bread isle.

First of all, a whole grain is made up of all three parts of the grain: the endosperm, bran, and germ, contrary to refined grains which have the bran and germ stripped off during processing. Nutritionally, whole grains trump refined grains for three main reasons: fiber, vitamins and minerals. The intact germ and bran of the wheat kernel are rich in fiber, iron, magnesium, vitamin E, zinc, copper, B vitamins, lignans, phenolic acids, phytochemicals, and protein. On the other hand, refined flours consist of the starchy endosperm and are only fortified with B1,2 and 3, iron, and folate. The take away message: you miss out on the nutritional benefits of whole grains when you choose processed grains.
Essentially, refined flour interacts with your body similar to straight table sugar. Without the fiber to slow its process through the digestive tract, refined grains are easily converted to glucose in the body and transported through the blood stream. Due to this fast-acting insulin boost, processed grains are considered to have a higher glycemic index (GI) than whole grains. For this reason, diets containing whole grains are associated with a decreased risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

In addition, studies have correlated whole grain consumption to decreased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and weight gain in adults. Fiber plays a role in keeping the digestive tract healthy by preventing diverticular disease, constipation, and carcinogen formation. In addition, fiber binds to cholesterol in food and in bile which is then excreted instead of recirculating in the body. This can actually decrease your total blood cholesterol by about 5%. Fiber is also key for signaling satiety to the brain. Thus people consuming high fiber diets from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are less likely to overeat.
Hopefully by now it is evident that whole grains are a good idea, now here’s the hard part: sifting through the label. By definition, manufacturers must list 100 percent whole wheat flour as the first ingredient in order for a product to qualify as being a good source of whole grain. Also, don’t forget to check the salt and sugar content of the bread. Many brands have added various forms of sugar, preservatives, and high amounts of sodium to their breads, even the healthier whole grain versions.

Currently, dietary guidelines recommend that Americans consume at least 3 servings of whole grain per day but only about 11% of grains in America are whole grains. Add whole grains like oats, rye, barley, brown rice, corn, buckwheat and quinoa to your shopping cart. They provide the complex carbohydrates you need for performance along with vitamins, minerals, and protein you need for recovery and metabolism. So next time you’re in the bread isle, go for the grain!

Slavin, JL, Jacobs D, Marquart L, et al. The role of whole grains in disease prevention. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 2001;101(7):780-785.