If you’re confused about the role of grains in your diet, you’re not alone. Based on the recent gluten-free eating craze and the decades-old low-carb fad, you may have heard that wheat and other grains are unhealthy. Some TV health gurus recommend eliminating wheat completely from your diet. There’s not enough consensus in the health community to support these recommendations, but eating too many of the wrong kinds of grains (highly processed), can lead to health problems.
For now, mainstream health experts believe that eating the right kinds of grains in the right amounts can help you maintain and improve your good health.
Whole grains are those that aren’t processed or refined before they are used to make foods such as bread or pasta. For example, white rice has had the healthful bran and cereal germ removed – choose brown rice instead for more fiber and vitamins and minerals, including niacin, magnesium, thiamine, phosphorus, manganese, selenium and vitamin B6. White bread is made from refined wheat and is highly sugary. Choose whole grain breads, reading the labels to make sure you’re not getting too much sugar and trans fat.
Refined grains and the foods made from them are often much lower in micronutrients and dietary fiber and contain more sugars, sweeteners, additives, preservatives, and artificial colorings. This is because the outer layers of the grains, which contain most of the healthy ingredients, are polished off. The main problem with these carbs (in their final food form) is the amount of sugar they contain. The whole low-carb diet craze was based on the mistaken assumption that because people were eating too many calories from junk carbs, all carbs were the enemy. Eating healthy carbs, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains, is a healthy way to manage your weight and maintain your health.
Benefits of Whole Grains
Whole grains contain a slew of health benefits. The website World’s Healthiest Foods does a good job of listing and explaining the health benefits of whole grains. Some highlights include:
- More micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)
- High in dietary fiber
- Slower digesting for better blood sugar levels
- Better options for satisfying carb needs and cravings
- Helps prevent specific diseases and conditions
What About Gluten?
If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, you should stay away from gluten. Smart marketers have realized that consumers are always looking for a culprit to blame for weight gain and poor health, and so today the enemy is gluten. Eating too much of any type of food, including whole grains, and remaining sedentary, is unhealthy. Before trying a gluten-free diet, try switching from refined grains to whole grains to see how your body reacts.
People who switch to gluten-free diets even though they don’t have celiac disease will tell you they have lost weight and feel great. However, it’s not because they’ve eliminated gluten from their diet (very difficult for the average person); it’s more likely they’ve lost weight and feel great because they have eliminated junk carbs, are eating fewer calories now that they’re on a new diet, and are exercising more.
What to Look For in Grains
Avoid sugary carbs made from refined grains (products often white in color) such as crackers, cakes, pies, cookies, pastries and white rice and pastas. To add whole grains to your diet, make the following improvements in your staple purchases:
- Whole grain pasta
- Whole grain cereals
- Whole grain breads
- Whole grain crackers
- Brown rice
- Steel cut or full flake oats
- Natural popcorn
Be Careful – Read Nutrition Labels
Just because a product says “whole grain” on the label doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice. Read ingredients labels to see how much of the product is whole grain. Some “whole grain” products contain a small amount (as low as 1%) – just enough to qualify to use the term “whole grain” on the label. Many oatmeals (especially those sold in individual, flavored packets) contain lots of sugar and sweeteners. When buying products made with whole grains, look for added sugars, sweeteners, trans fat, and other unhealthy items.
Better yet, add unprocessed, plain versions of these foods to your diet:
- Wild rice
- Wheat berries