A whole lot of health in little whole grains

Published 5:20 pm Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Whole Grains Council proclaims September as Whole Grains Month. Guidelines for healthy eating have long been proclaiming that Americans should be including more whole grains in their eating choices. Americans are guilty of eating predominately white, pasty, bland starchy foods and doing without the full flavors and health benefits that whole grains offer.

What is a whole grain? This term refers to using the entire grain in milling or food production. A grain is made up of primarily three parts. First, the ‘germ’ is the inner most part, similar to the yolk of an egg.  It is the embryo that has the potential to sprout into a new plant. It contains many B vitamins, some protein, minerals, and healthy fats. The ‘endosperm’ is the largest part, similar to the white of an egg, and contains the starch. It is the germ’s food supply, providing essential energy to the young plant so it can grow. The ‘bran’ is the outer most layer, like the eggshell, and provides much of the fiber, B-vitamins and antioxidants. 

‘Whole grains’ contain all three parts of the kernel. Refining normally removes the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm. Without the bran and germ, about 25 percent of a grain’s protein is lost, along with at least 17 key nutrients. Processors add back some vitamins and minerals to enrich refined grains, so refined products still contribute valuable nutrients. But whole grains are healthier, providing more protein, more fiber and many important vitamins and minerals. If you see the word ‘refined,’ then you know it’s not a whole grain.

Studies show that eating whole grains instead of refined grains lowers the risk of many chronic diseases. Benefits are most pronounced for those consuming at least three servings daily.  Individuals who have opted to abstain from wheat and gluten due to allergy or intolerance can use other whole grains such as amaranth, brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, corn (meal and popped) millet and sorghum. 

The benefits of whole grains most documented by repeated studies include: stroke risk reduced 30 percent to 36 percent, type 2 diabetes risk reduced 21 percent to 30 percent, heart disease risk reduced 25 percent to 28 percent and better weight maintenance. Other benefits indicated by recent studies include: reduced risk of asthma, healthier carotid arteries, reduction of inflammatory disease risk, lower risk of colorectal cancer, healthier blood pressure levels and less gum disease and tooth loss.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends meeting the daily requirement by eating three “ounce-equivalents” of breads, rolls, cereals or other grain foods made with 100-percent whole grains. An easier way to think about it is to just look at your plate at each meal, and make sure you’ve included some source of whole grain. There are also great opportunities to eat whole grains at snacks as well.

Every little bit helps. While three or more servings each day will optimize your health benefits, scientists and health experts agree that every bit of whole grain you eat contributes to your health. Even small amounts can start you on the road to better health. So look for ways to get a little here, a little there.

Often simple swaps are easier than learning to dance with a “whole” new partner with an odd name like quinoa or amaranth.  Here are some easy breakfast swaps: whole-wheat English muffins, breakfast cereal or bar that lists a “whole” grain as the first ingredient, French toast using whole-wheat bread, granola bars with rolled oats, rolled or steel-cut oats in place of grits, buckwheat pancakes or breakfast burrito with a whole-wheat tortilla. Notice the Southern biscuit is not a regular at the dance.

For snacking, substitute whole-grain crackers, whole-wheat pretzels, popcorn, whole-wheat pita chips or make your own by cutting whole-wheat tortillas into triangles and baking until crisp.

At lunch or supper, swap white rice for brown or wild rice, use whole-wheat dinner or hamburger rolls, whole-wheat breadcrumbs in meatloaf or on coated on baked fish, use whole-wheat pasta noodles disguised with a marinara sauce or in a casserole. It is usually the color that triggers eye rolls, so cover the tan appearance with other ingredients and keep your mouth shut until after the plates are clean.

Use weekends when you have more time to become adventurous trying new grains and recipes.  Cook extra for the week ahead. Bulgur or “cracked wheat” only takes about 10 minutes to cook, though. It is sometimes referred to as “Middle Eastern pasta” for its versatility as a base for all sorts of dishes. Bulgur is an extremely nutritious fast food for quick side dishes, pilafs or salads. Its best-known traditional use is in the grain and vegetable salad known as tabbouleh. Quinoa is a favorite versatile grain that cooks like rice in water or broth. It can be eaten as is or with any spare vegetable, meat or bean added.

Salute Whole Grain Month, but resolve to make whole grains a staple in your diet, all day long. For more information on grains, recipes and labeling, refer to http://wholegrainscouncil.org.


Laurel MacKenzie, RD, LDN, CDE, is a registered dietitian at Vidant Beaufort Hospital.