Putting the Hurt on Whole Grains

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | July 30, 2013

Scientific American took a swipe at whole grains this month in “Whole-Grain Foods Not Always Healthful.” While the article is chockfull o’ important facts, it suffers from that nasty disease that seems

to infect most of the media these days. You know the one: sensationalism-at-the-expense-of-common-sense-itis.

The information in the article is great, offering current, scientific validation to notions that the holistic community has been flapping about for years. Just because a food product is “whole grain” doesn’t mean it’s awesome, primarily for two reasons. First, it can still be packed with added sugars and chemicals. Second, most food companies process the hell out of the “whole grains” to the point that the fiber doesn’t really work anymore and many of the nutrients are compromised–largely for flavor or preservation purposes. The bran, endosperm, and germ are still in there; they just don’t work so good no more. It’s a little like that episode of Happy Days where The Fonz had a toothache, so they ran a cheeseburger and fries through a blender for him. It’s just not the same.

Here’s an example from the article:

For instance, bread made from 80 percent–whole-wheat kernels is absorbed much more slowly than bread made from ground whole wheat. When a person eats intact grains, the body has to break down the outer bran before digesting the inner endosperm and germ. Ground grains often don’t provide these metabolic brakes.

Great information, right? The only problem is that this article paints whole grain products with such an ugly brush that a lot of (lazy, overfed) people are going to assume that all whole grains are a write off, so let them eat Wonder Bread! I completely agree with the article in its assessment that people with health issues like diabetes endanger themselves when they mistakenly believe all whole grain products will benefit them, but I also think there’s something to be said for making an attempt to eat minimally better whole grain products instead of falling back on refined products.

For example, the article singles out brown rice, pointing out that it would take nine cups of the stuff to get all the fiber you need daily. It then includes the expert quote “There’s nothing wrong with eating brown rice, but you can’t expect health benefits if you’re going to be eating brown rice as your source of whole grains.”

Who eats nine cups of rice a day? A panda bear on a bamboo-free diet? Of course that’s not how to do it! Instead, one cup of brown rice with, say, a big veggie stir-fry is a great way to get your fiber on. But the article doesn’t point out that out, instead making brown rice consumption sound futile.

(While we’re on the topic, I’ve been reading the argument lately that white rice is okay because brown rice is only marginally better fiber-wise. Hogwash. Faulty nutrition isn’t all about ice cream binges and super-sizing. It’s also about a thousand little healthful things you can do that will turn into one big, healthy thing. Those 3 extra grams of fiber in a cup of brown rice that you don’t find in white rice will add up.)

Instead of just throwing the wholegrain baby out with the refined flour bathwater, I wish this article would have been more proactive about teaching people how to do whole grains right. (There are a few tips, but they’re buried at the end of the article.)

But I’m here to help. I’ve taken Scientific American’s tips, tidied them up and added my own perspective, all in three handy, dandy tips.

1. Eat less grains in general. They’re good for you in moderation, but they shouldn’t be the focus of your diet. They’re heavy on calories and don’t pack the nutritional punch of fruits and veggies. You don’t really need grains to eat healthfully, but I’m not telling you give ’em up completely because they don’t suck nutritionally and they’re delicious, but limit them to two or three servings a day.

2. Read the damn nutrition facts. At your age, seriously, you should know better. Never trust the front label. Do you seriously believe Cocoa Puffs are healthy because that “Whole Grain” banner has been slapped across Sonny the Cuckoo’s ass? Turn the box around. Look at the nutrition facts and you’ll see that you’d be better off eating cuckoo guano. Look at the fiber count. You want at least three or four grams per serving. Next, read the ingredients list. If there’s sugar listed, well, there’s sugar inside. Same goes for bread, pasta, or anything.

3. Eat whole foods. As the points out (a bit too quietly), you’re much better off eating whole grains that are actually whole. Eat steel-cut oats instead of flakes or puffs. Boil up some millet instead of eating bread.

And that’s all you need to do in order to keep your grain habit from jumping the shark.

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