Most of us aren’t getting the USDA-recommended three to five servings of whole grains per day, according to a 2014 study published in Nutrition Research. The marketing research firm Mintel Research reported that the sales of gluten-free foods rose by 63 percent between 2012 and 2014. And a July Gallup poll of 1,009 adults found that 21 percent of the people surveyed admitted they try to avoid foods that contain gluten. The growing Paleo diet trend — which advises followers to avoid whole grains and gluten — could be one contributing factor.
“I work with a lot of customer who are Paleo, and it’s not an unhealthy diet,” says Beachbody Director of Nutrition Content Denis Faye. “But the dogma [that you shouldn’t eat whole grains] is kind of ridiculous. I think the USDA three to five servings [per day] is overzealous … but throwing out the whole-grain baby with the refined flour bathwater means you’re throwing out healthy stuff like oatmeal, sprouted grain bread, and brown rice. Compared to consuming refined grains — where the phytonutrients and fiber are gone — consuming whole grains is important. When you lose the fiber it causes [blood] sugar spikes that can lead to heart issues, diabetes, and other nasty things.”
Faye continues, “Whole grains can be good for you and make up an important part of a diet, but they’re not required. There’s nothing magic you can get from whole grains that you can’t get from fruits and veggies. However, they are healthy, yummy, and add variety to a diet. Also, they can be warming and nourishing. Nothing beats a warm bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter day.”
Whole grains contain bran, germ, and endosperm; refined grains only contain the endosperm. Phytonutrients found in foods such as whole grains, fruits, veggies, and legumes play a vital role in immune system function and promoting liver health. Fiber’s benefits are plentiful, including helping you feel fuller faster (which can aid weight control), revving up metabolism, and keeping bathroom visits regular.
“Try this: place a piece of white bread and a piece of whole grain bread on your tongue; you’ll notice how quickly the white bread breaks down,” Faye says. “As quickly as the white bread breaks down on your tongue, that’s how quickly it breaks down from the time you put it in your mouth to the time it gets to the intestines. It shoots right through you. But that extra processing and junky flour used in white bread is what many people know and prefer; to them wheat bread seems weird and complicated.”
Whole grains are complex carbs that take longer for the body to break down. Brown rice, quinoa (a pseudo-grain, technically), barley, corn, sorghum, oatmeal, and buckwheat, to name a few, can all be quality whole-grain sources. (A more comprehensive list is available via the Whole Grains Council.) Although quinoa is enjoying its moment as a “superfood,” bread is still trying to make it out of the doghouse because of its connection with carbohydrates, something many people associate with weight gain.
“There’s no science behind the claim that bread makes you fat,” says registered dietitian Keri Gans, author of The Small Change Diet. “It’s what you put between the bread. Yet although there are many positive benefits to whole grains, people tend to skew the science to fit their own beliefs.”
Ultimately, she says, weight gain comes down to portion control. “Chicken, avocado, bread, and almonds are all amazing healthy foods, but if you eat too much of any of them you’ll gain weight,” Gans explains. “The individual needs to look at the big picture and all of the ingredients [in the food or dish] instead of picking out one ingredient or one vitamin or one mineral.
“I tell patients to look at the first ingredient on the nutritional label as well as the fiber content,” Gans says. “If it’s whole wheat, there you go. If it says ‘unbleached whole wheat flour,’ the first ingredient in Wonder Bread … you’re not going to be getting the health benefits of whole grains.”
Additionally, if the terms “multi grain,” “wheat” or “7 grain” are on the packaging, the food is not made with 100 percent whole grains.