Eating more whole grains is a smart move for most of us, since the average U.S. adult eats less than a third of what’s recommended for overall health. Whole grains contain not only the endosperm portion of a grain that you get in a refined grain, but also the bran and germ layers. That’s why whole grains provide more nutrients, fiber and health-promoting phytocompounds.
Why Whole Grains Matter
At a time when there’s so much talk about “carbs,” it’s important to consider what you read and hear in context of the big picture.
- Fiber: Everyone has probably heard that dietary fiber is good for health. Although you can (and should) get dietary fiber from other foods, it would be hard for most people to reach recommended amounts of fiber without whole grains.
- Phytocompounds: Natural plant compounds found in whole grains may also be an important part of whole grains’ health protection, so don’t focus on fiber alone. For example, laboratory studies in isolated cells and in animals suggest that compounds called phenolic acids found in whole grains may increase antioxidant and anti-inflammatory defenses.
Reducing cancer risk is a strong reason to eat more whole grains. Analysis combining six studies that followed large groups of people over time found lower overall cancer risk associated with greater whole grain consumption. Lower risk started with even one serving a day, and protection got stronger as the number of servings increased.
According to the latest AICR report evaluating evidence on diet and cancer, there is strong evidence that whole grains reduces the risk of colorectal cancer. Whole grains might also reduce risk of other cancers, but data is too limited to draw any conclusions without further research.
Beyond cancer risk, eating more whole grains also promotes heart health and reduces the risk of diabetes. Emerging evidence from randomized controlled trials in adults at risk of type 2 diabetes, combined with results of animal studies, suggests that whole grains may improve glucose metabolism and reduce insulin resistance. Research also shows potential for whole grains to promote growth of a more health-promoting gut microbiota (microbes living in the colon), which could play an important role in many aspects of health by reducing chronic low-grade inflammation.
Are Some Whole Grains Better than Others?
In the U.S., most whole grain consumption comes as either bread or cereal. Those familiar foods are a great start, but try thinking outside the box for more options and potential for a wider range of benefits.
- Fiber is not all the same. Insoluble fiber is the bulk-producing fiber that helps avoid constipation. Studies consistently link it to lower risk of type 2 diabetes, although scientists aren’t sure of the mechanism. Whole wheat, whole grain rye, quinoa, brown rice and popcorn all provide insoluble fiber. Viscous fiber or soluble fiber, is fiber that forms a gel in the digestive tract, helping to reduce blood cholesterol and possibly to slow the speed at which carbohydrates hit your bloodstream. Fermentable fiber is what health-promoting gut microbes use to produce short-chain fatty acids that are protective in your colon and beyond. Oatmeal, barley and corn are whole grain choices that provide viscous fiber, fermentable fiber or both. Even without fermentable fiber, whole grains may support the gut microbiome since their polyphenol compounds seem to be fermented by these microbes.
- Milled or intact: Emerging research is exploring whether intact whole grains (such as brown rice, farro, bulgur, sorghum, millet and quinoa) offer additional benefits beyond breads, cereals and pasta made from whole grains milled into flour. All of these whole grain foods contain the complete grain — bran, germ and endosperm — and thus are more health-protective than refined grains. Studies are exploring whether intact grains may offer additional benefits, such as a smaller or slower rise in blood sugar and insulin levels or more support for gut microbes.
Watch for Whole Grain Halos
Until we have more research, don’t get overly hung-up over differences among whole grains in type of fiber and intact or milled forms. There are, however, other concerns that are well worth considering. Don’t let a “whole grain” label create a health halo that leads you to overlook differences among whole grain options that are important.
- What’s added: When whole grain foods are flavored with large amounts of added sugar or salt, the net benefit for health is reduced.
- Brown rice or other whole grains cooked with an enclosed “flavor packet” often ends up with 500-1,000 milligrams (mg) of sodium per portion. That’s well over a third of the recommended limit on sodium for a whole day. Instead, choose unseasoned whole grains and have fun adding the herbs or spices that suit your taste buds.
- When whole grain cereals contain 16 grams of added sugars, that’s equal to 4 teaspoons of sugar, which is a third of the recommended maximum for the day. The best choice would be a cereal with little or no added sugar that you enjoy mixed with fresh or dried fruit and tasty nuts or seeds. Even if you add a bit of sugar or honey, you most likely will add a smaller amount than the package contains. For those transitioning from a super-sweetened cereal, try mixing it with an unsweetened cereal and gradually shift the proportions to emphasize the low-sugar choice.
- Portion distortion: Whole grains seem to support a healthy weight, but that benefit can be lost if a health halo leads to overdoing it. For example, tortillas can be a great way to include whole grains. Corn tortillas, the traditional choice for tacos and enchiladas, often contain 60 to 65 calories in each small six-inch piece. For flour tortillas, instead of those made from enriched flour (a refined grain), look for whole wheat options. Flour tortillas are slightly higher in calories because they contain added fat to make them softer and easier to roll. Small, six-inch flour tortillas usually aren’t more than 100 calories. However, dishes like fajitas, burritos and chimichangas often use larger tortillas. A thicker, 12-inch flour tortilla may contain nearly 300+ calories, with more carbohydrates than three typical slices of bread.
- Gluten-free confusion: For people who do not have sensitivity to gluten, avoiding gluten does not make a diet more healthful. And many of the specially labeled gluten-free products are refined grains. If you do need to avoid gluten, look beyond the “gluten-free” label. Whole grains without gluten include amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, corn, millet, teff, brown rice and wild rice. Cook up a big batch and freeze cooked grains in individual serving size packets. You can pull these out as needed for a side dish, replacement for pasta in a mixed dish, an addition to a salad or bowl, or even for a breakfast grain.
Whole Grains in the Big Picture
AICR recommendations call for including whole grains in most meals as part of a healthy eating pattern. Start where you are and add an extra serving one day at a time, especially as a swap for a less nutritious food. Rather than relying on one go-to choice, let the array of whole grain options add both nutrition and flavor variety to your meals.