The world is full of instagram diets and top tips to lose weight by cutting out whole food groups. And one of those food groups to have been hit hard is grains! Low carb and paleo fans will tell you to get rid of these awful foods from your diet as they will only cause cancer and make you gain weight. Well, I am here to tell you why that is all untrue and that in reality you should be adding grains into your diet.
Bread will never be off the menu again.
What are grains?(1)
Firstly, I think it helps to have a clear understanding of what grains are. Simply put grains are a wide variety of cereal crops. The grain is comprised of three parts which include:
1. the bran – the fibrous outer layer
2. the germ – the inner part full of nutrients
3. the endosperm – the starchy bit in the middle
When we talk about grains we can put them into the two categories of whole grain and refined grains (I go into more detail about this below). Essentially we find most of the good stuff in the bran and the germ, which is why whole grains contain up to 75% more nutrients than refined grains, as these are removed in the refining process.
Whole grains provide us with essential nutrients such as:
- a range of B vitamins
All of which contribute to having a healthy diet that leads to positive health outcomes and disease prevention.
Examples of grains include:
How much should you be aiming to eat?
Currently in the UK, there are no guidelines for the public to follow. We do know that in the UK unfortunately whole grain intake remains low, lower than the US and Danish recommendations. However, if we take a look at other countries, recommendations tend to be around three servings a day.
This could look like:
- 2 tbsps heaped cooked brown rice
- 2 cups of popcorn
- 2 tbsp of cooked whole grain pasta
- 1 slice of whole grain bread
- 1 tbsp uncooked oats
What is the difference between whole and refined grains?
As mentioned above, in refined grains the parts of the grain containing all the nutrients that are beneficial to us, are stripped away. This leaves us with a less nutrient dense grain that is used to make things like cakes, bread or even something as simple as white rice. In some cases, the leftover grain may than be fortified to add back in some of the nutrients, like fortified cereals for example. However, things like phytochemical can not be added back in.(2) In one report, refined pasta and rice were the most commonly purchased grain food and participants did not prioritise consumption of whole grains.(4)
So with all the nutrients stripped away are refined grains bad for you?
As always, the research into dietary components and their effects are never straight forward. A diet isn’t made of only one component and understanding the relationship between different food types and our bodies is hard. In some studies, there was a positive association between eating refined grains and an increase in body weight(4). The mechanisms for this could be due to the lack of fibre in refined products and not feeling as full after eating these types of food meaning we eat more shortly after. We also know that refined foods, such as cakes and pastries, have high glycemic index levels. This can lead to sudden glucose absorption and a sequence of hormone changes that can lead to overeating and can be problematic if you are diabetic and not controlling your diet and insulin adequately.
That all being said, the reality is there is little research to show that refined grains are the devil they are made out to be. A lot of evidence highlights that instead of demonising refined grains, we need to focus more on whole grains. One study made the great point of that when we are studying refined grains we need to really be able to distinguish what type of foods we are talking about within the study. Some studies that have shown a positive relationship between weight gain and refined grains are talking about cookies, donuts and pizza, which other studies might not have included. From these it is impossible to really understand what is causing weight gain. Is it the refined grain staple food such as pasta and rice or is it simply the indulgent treats that should only be eaten occasionally and also contain high amounts of fat(5)?
Multiple studies have shown that refined grain intake does not appear to be associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes or becoming obese(6). What they do focus on and what the studies frequently come to the conclusion of is that we need to focus on increasing our whole grains but we can still enjoy one or two servings a day of refined grains. So instead of telling people to cut out all grains and refined grains specifically, we should be encouraging an increase in whole grains.
Why are they so good for you?
Having looked at refined grains a bit more lets move on to all the great benefits of whole grains.
- Eating whole grains can improve biomarkers such as blood lipid improvements and antioxidant protection, this can protect you against cardiovascular disease and potentially cancer(7)
- As whole grains still have all the fibre, fat and protein in them they lead to increased satiety, which subsequently reduced hunger without changing energy intake at future meals(8)
- High intakes of dietary fibre, particularly from whole grains, is associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer(9)
- If you want to reduce your risk of developing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD), whole grains are the way to do it. Anderson showed us that people with higher intakes of whole grains had a 29% lower risk of developing ASCVD than those with lower intakes(10)
- In one, admittedly, very small trial adults who ate a whole grain rich diet had slight improvements in their gut microbiota and immune responses. While more research is still needed this is a promising and interesting study(11)
- A study focusing purely on women found whole grains were linked to fewer deaths from inflammatory and infectious causes. Such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout or asthma(12)
- From a diabetes angle, eating more whole grains instead of refined grains may reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This could possibly be due to the fibre and phytochemical improving insulin sensitive and slowing the absorption of food, reducing blood sugar spikes(6)
There is a lot of evidence to show that whole grains are good for us. And we should all be aiming for a minimum of 3 servings a day, from a few different sources. By increasing your whole grain intake you are going to feel more full and reduce the opportunity to eat refined foods. If you are a diabetic eating whole grains will help manage your blood sugar.
A reason you may not want to eat too many grains are if you have digestive issues. Due to the high fibre content of whole grains they can definitely lead to intestinal pain. However, if you start with small portions and add slowly over an extended period of time your body should adjust. Also try different types of grains. I personally can not eat wheat based foods, however I can still eat a variety of other grains. If you are gluten intolerant, this will also apply to you. Look for alternatives and experiment with what works for you.
Why do some people argue we shouldn’t be eating grains?
With all the great benefits of whole grains, why is it still so prevalent to see people telling you to not go anywhere near them.
One reasons is people following the paleo diet. For those who don’t know, the paleo diet is a diet designed to eat as we supposedly did prehistorically. To eat like our ancestors. Which apparently means no grains at all. However, we actually don’t know a lot about how our ancestors ate. Geographically speaking the plants and animals we ate would have varied massively. So no group of humans ate the same anyway. It also all might not matter that much as the human digestive tract developed over a longer period of time than our primate ancestors and so our bodies are better equipped to eat foods such as grains. Following a paleo diet, can put you at risk for multiple deficiencies and mean you miss out on foods that are beneficial to us such as whole grains.
Another group that may be telling you to avoid grains are people who follow low carb diets. In some instances it may be recommended by your doctor or dietitian/nutritionist to follow a low carb diet. However this should be done under supervision and for the right reasons.
At the end of the day, grains are great. They are tasty and nutritious and yes even refined grains have their place. Where would birthdays be without cake? As always it is about balance. Don’t fill up on lots of refined grains but instead try to add in more whole grains. Opt for whole grain pasta most of the time instead of the classic white pasta.
Simple swaps and adding in the right foods can do wonders for your diet. If you see a diet being pushed on instagram or your friend is telling you how great they feel now they’ve cut out whole food groups, take a second to step back and think. Do they have a nutrition degree? Is this actually the right thing for me? Unless your doctor or nutrition professional has told you to cut back on certain foods, opt instead for a diet filled with foods that are good for you.
We know the mediterranean diet is one of the healthiest and it includes grains as a staple component.
- Factsheet on Wholegrains: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/wholegrains.html
- Harvard whole-grains fact sheet: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/whole-grains/
- Foster, S., Beck, E., Hughes, J. and Grafenauer, S., 2020. Whole Grains and Consumer Understanding: Investigating Consumers’ Identification, Knowledge and Attitudes to Whole Grains. Nutrients, 12(8), p.2170
- Liu, S., Willett, W.C., Manson, J.E., Hu, F.B., Rosner, B. and Colditz, G., 2003. Relation between changes in intakes of dietary fiber and grain products and changes in weight and development of obesity among middle-aged women. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 78(5), pp.920-927.
- Gaesser, G.A., 2019. Perspective: refined grains and health: genuine risk, or guilt by association?. Advances in Nutrition, 10(3), pp.361-371.
- Aune, D., Norat, T., Romundstad, P. and Vatten, L.J., 2013. Whole grain and refined grain consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose–response meta-analysis of cohort studies. European journal of epidemiology, 28(11), pp.845-858.
- Slavin, J., 2004. Whole grains and human health. Nutrition research reviews, 17(1), pp.99-110.
- Cioffi, I., Ibrugger, S., Bache, J., Thomassen, M.T., Contaldo, F., Pasanisi, F. and Kristensen, M., 2016. Effects on satiation, satiety and food intake of wholegrain and refined grain pasta. Appetite, 107, pp.152-158.
- Aune, D., Chan, D.S., Lau, R., Vieira, R., Greenwood, D.C., Kampman, E. and Norat, T., 2011. Dietary fibre, whole grains, and risk of colorectal cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. Bmj, 343.
- Anderson, J.W., 2003. Whole grains protect against atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 62(1), pp.135-142.
- Eating whole grains led to modest improvements in gut microbiota and immune response: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170208151337.htm
- Jacobs DR, Jr., Andersen LF, Blomhoff R. Whole-grain consumption is associated with a reduced risk of noncardiovascular, noncancer death attributed to inflammatory diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1606-14.