Just What, Exactly, Is A “Whole Grain” And Why Does It Matter?

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Everyone knows you’re supposed to eat more whole grains. But what does that mean, exactly, and why should you care? In today’s post, let’s take a closer look at the difference between whole and refined grains, the many benefits of whole grains, and some examples of whole grains you can add to your diet.

Whole Grain vs. Refined

Grain kernels are made up of three parts:

  • The bran is an edible outer layer protecting the kernel.
  • The germ is the embryonic part of the kernel, which has the potential to sprout into a new plant.
  • The endosperm is the largest part of the kernel. It acts as the food supply for a young plant that would grow from the grain.

When we talk about whole grains, we mean that the bran, germ, and endosperm are all intact. None of them are removed before you eat the grain. With refined grains, though, you lose one or both of the bran and endosperm in the milling process.

Refining grains leaves just a fraction of the original protein and nutrients behind. To combat that loss of nutrients you’ll see many refined grains described as “enriched,” which means part of the nutrients were added back artificially and in different proportions than what was in the original grain.

Benefits of Whole Grains

Quite a larger number of research and studies support the benefits of whole grains on the body. And it’s a good thing there’s so much science to back it up because without that kind of proof the claims would sound too good to be true. Here are just a few of the things whole grains can do for you:

  • A study of more than 15,000 people by the University of Minnesota School of Public Health found that rate of death from all causes went down as whole-grain consumption went up.
  • Whole grains digest slowly, helping keep blood sugar and insulin levels stable. In addition, researchers from the Nurses’ Health Study found that women eating more than 5 grams of fiber from whole grains had a 30% less risk of type 2 diabetes than those who ate fewer than 2.5 grams.
  • Three or more servings of whole grains help control weight. The link is strongest in women, though it is found in men as well. And teenagers benefit as well as adults.
  • Regularly eating whole grains reduces the risk of heart disease. At least 25 different studies support this finding. All grains will help, but some specific whole grains have additional benefits. Oats cut cholesterol levels and barley decreases blood pressure.
  • More than 40 studies suggest whole grains help protect against cancer risk. These studies looked at 20 types of cancer, including gastrointestinal cancers and cancers in the oral cavity.

Whole Grains You Can Eat

You have several options when shopping for whole grain foods. Some are cereal grains, like oatmeal and wheat, while others are seeds, like quinoa. Here are some of the whole grains to look for:

  • Rice (brown rice, black rice, wild rice, etc.)
  • Oats
  • Rye
  • Wheat
  • Bulgar (cracked wheat)
  • Barley
  • Millet
  • Buckwheat
  • Popcorn

When purchasing the grains on their own, look for labels that say “whole grain” and do not say “enriched.” And when you’re shopping for foods like pasta and bread, try to find options that say “100% whole grain” rather than a vague label like “made with whole wheat.”

The fairly simple step of replacing refined grains with whole grains is going to make a big difference in your life. You’ll be increasing the variety of grains in your diet without sacrificing taste. Plus you’re going to get all those great health benefits as well. There’s literally no downside to making this switch. So let’s get out there and enjoy our whole grains!

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