Attitudes towards grains are varied in the nutritional world, and not everyone is aware of all the benefits of whole grains.
There are many popular diets throughout the world encouraging people to eat fewer common grains to banish wheat, gluten, and excess carbohydrates. Even the keto diet, which doesn’t forbid grains entirely, makes it difficult to consume large amounts while sticking to the rules of the diet.
However, grains are more complex than many people realize. While eating large amounts of refined grains might be bad for you, the USDA actually recommends eating whole grains on a regular basis.
Unless you have celiac disease, a gluten intolerance, or another valid reason for cutting your intake of grains, reducing your consumption of whole grains could mean you miss out on the many health benefits of whole grains.
Those who do have a gluten intolerance are generally aware that there are still plenty of whole grain foods that are gluten-free, such as oats and quinoa.
Here’s what you need to know about the advantages of eating whole grains:
What are Whole Grains? An Introduction
To understand the benefits of whole grains, you’ll first need an insight into what whole grains are, and how they’re different from the refined grains you’ll find elsewhere in the market.
First, grains are essentially the seeds of certain plants known as ‘cereals.’ Common types of cereals include rice, wheat, and corn. There are also some seeds of non-grass plants which fall into the ‘grains’ category, such as amaranth, and quinoa.
What makes whole grains whole, is the fact they contain all parts of the seed kernel. This means you get a combination of three main elements:
- The Bran: The hard outer part of the seed, brimming with antioxidants, minerals, and fiber.
- The Endosperm: The central part of the seed, where you’ll find the carbohydrates.
- The Germ: The inner layer of vitamins, protein, plant compounds, and minerals.
Grains don’t have to be “whole” in structure to be deemed whole grains. As long as the three elements above are present in the correct proportions, whole grains can be cracked, crushed, rolled, and transformed into a range of different formats.
When grains are “refined”, the bran and germ are removed, leaving the endosperm and the carbohydrates behind. While there are “enriched” refined grains out there, which have some of their minerals and vitamins added back in, they still don’t match the benefits of whole grains.
Whole grains are also a form of “complex carbohydrate,” the type of carb which contains more nutrients and minerals than your standard “simple carb.” Common variants of whole grains you might be aware of include:
- Whole rye
The Benefits of Eating Whole Grains
Foods made with whole grains contain significantly more nutritional value than refined grain alternatives. For instance, when you get a whole grain loaf of bread, it will generally be packed with more vitamins and minerals than any refined white bread. It’s worth keeping an eye out for factors which might influence the healthiness of the whole grain product (such as added salt and sugar).
While there are many potential benefits associated with whole grains, some of the most common benefits of eating whole grains include:
One of the biggest reasons so many experts recommend eating whole grains is that most are extremely high in fiber. Most adult women need around 21-25 grams of fiber per day, while men need around 30-38 grams per day. Whole grains contain two different kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble.
Both of these forms of fiber are useful to maintaining good health. A high-fiber diet doesn’t just improve digestion and normalize your bowel movements, it can also help with lowering cholesterol levels, maintaining blood sugar levels, and reducing your colon cancer risk.
Because fiber digests slowly, it also helps us feel fuller for longer, and reduces the chances of unhealthy late-night snacking. Keep in mind, not all whole grains have the highest levels of fiber.
Bulgar, barley, and oats are fantastic types of whole grains to add to your diet if you’re trying to increase your fiber intake.
2. High Nutrient Content
Whole grains aren’t just rich in fiber, they also have a host of other important nutrients to offer. The exact nutritional profile of each grain is different, but many whole grain foods contain:
- Minerals: Whole grains contain zinc, iron, manganese, and magnesium, all ideal for helping to improve the functioning of various organs throughout the body.
- Vitamins: Some grains are high in B vitamins such as niacin, thiamine, and folate. These help with a range of cellular functions, such as transporting nutrients around the body.
- Protein: Certain whole grains can even improve your protein intake. Quinoa is particularly rich in protein and relatively low in carbs.
- Antioxidants: The plant compounds in whole grains are great if you’re interested in boosting your antioxidants. Some available antioxidants in grains include phytic acid and lignans.
- Plant compounds: Other plant compounds also include polyphenols, sterols, and stanols which play a significant role in preventing disease.
3. Could Reduce Heart Disease Risk
Studies show whole grains may be effective at lowering your risk of heart disease (the world’s leading cause of death). A 1-ounce serving of whole grains could be enough to reduce your risk of heart disease by 22%. Another report even found adults who ate a higher proportion of whole grains had an up 47% lower risk of heart disease.
The heart benefits of whole grains extend into a number of different areas. Whole grains can help to prevent your body from absorbing LDL (bad) cholesterol, and lower your triglyceride levels – which are both major contributors to heart disease.
Whole grains can even reduce your risk of stroke. According to one study of 250,000 participants, people eating the most whole grains had a 14% reduced risk of stroke. This is thanks not just to the cholesterol-reducing and heart-healthy components of whole grains, but certain compounds such as vitamin K, fiber, and antioxidants too.
4. Weight Management
Though some people assume cutting down on grains is the best way to lose weight, due to their high carbohydrate content, this may not be the case. Rather, the kinds of grains you eat may have more of an impact on your weight than you realize.
Fiber-rich foods such as whole grains are more likely to leave you feeling fuller for longer, so you’re less likely to snack. This is one of the reasons weight loss proponents recommend high-fiber diets.
Studies show eating whole grains can significantly lower your risk of obesity. Eating just 3 servings of whole grains per day was linked to reduced belly fat and BMI in a review of 15 studies. Another report also found wholegrain cereal and certain cereals with added bran were also associated with a lower risk of obesity.
5. Reduced Inflammation
While the impact of inflammation on the body can vary drastically, most experts agree it’s the root cause of many chronic diseases. Some evidence suggests whole grains can help to reduce inflammation on a significant level.
In one study, the women in the report with the most whole grains in their diet were deemed least likely to die from inflammation-related conditions. Other research has found people with unhealthy diets who replaced refined grains with whole wheat products saw a reduction in their common inflammatory markers.
These findings suggest eating whole grains could be a valuable way to reduce your risk of various chronic diseases.
6. Reduced Risk of Diabetes
While further research is needed into this benefit, some experts believe replacing the refined grains in your diet with whole grains can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes. One review of 16 studies looked at the practice of switching refined grains with their whole alternatives and found blood sugar management was improved, and diabetes risk reduced.
There are various reasons why researchers believe whole grains are excellent for the fight against diabetes. As mentioned above, whole grains high fiber content can help with weight control, and preventing obesity – a common risk factor in diabetes.
What’s more, whole grain intake is often linked to lower blood sugar levels when fasting, and improved overall insulin sensitivity. This could be linked to the presence of magnesium in wholegrains, which helps to metabolize carbs.
7. Lower Risk of Cancer
Diabetes isn’t the only common disease whole grains could help us to fight against. Research into whole grains and cancer risk is still ongoing. However, many studies have shown significant promise.
Currently, experts believe whole grains are particularly beneficial at reducing a person’s risk of colorectal cancer. This could have something to do with the fiber in whole grains, and their ability to support the healthy functioning of the digestive system.
Fiber is also an important prebiotic, which is essential to good gut health (another factor in protecting against various forms of cancer). Components of whole grains such as phenolic acids and phytic acid may also help to slow the development of some cancers, according to studies.
8. Lower Risk of Premature Death
Since whole grains are often connected with various health-boosting benefits, and a lower risk of various chronic diseases such as diabetes and cancer, it makes sense they’d be associated with increased longevity too. Scientists often suggest wholegrains may have the potential to reduce our risk of dying prematurely for a range of reasons.
Most reports look specifically at whole grains and their ability to reduce our risk of dying from specific conditions, such as heart disease. However, there was a study which looked at whole grain’s potential to reduce other risks of premature death too.
This report found every 1-ounce serving of whole grains resulted in a 5% lower risk of premature death, while accounting for various other factors such as smoking habits and body weight.
Should Everyone Eat More Whole Grains?
Notably, while most people could definitely benefit from getting more whole grains into their diet, this isn’t the case for everyone. Some people have genetic food intolerances that force them to be careful about eating grains.
If you suffer from IBS, you may also find the short-chain carbohydrates in some grains such as wheat are problematic for your condition.
Similarly, if you’re taking part in certain diets, you may struggle to increase whole grain consumption. A single serving of most grains on the keto diet can exceed your carb allotment for the entire day. If you’re on a less strict low-carb diet, you could try eating grains with a lower carb content, such as popcorn, bulgar, oats, and quinoa.
Aim to replace the refined grains you already eat with their whole grain alternatives. Switching from white pasta, white rice and white bread to whole grain alternatives should be an easy way to start reaping some benefits of whole grains.