Contrary to previous research findings, refined grain consumption is not associated with any of the adverse health effects it has been linked to, such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. This is according to a new study from the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University (ASU) published in Advances in Nutrition. The researchers note that what counts is the number of consumed calories, not so much their source. Should you totally do away with refined grains? In this article, we will discuss finding a balance.
- Whole grains vs. regular grains: What’s the difference?
Whole grains provide a variety of healthy nutrients and are naturally low in fat.
Both refined grains and whole grains are important in your diet. Whole grains are important for health since they provide fiber and essential vitamins. Enriched/refined grains provide fiber too, and 39 percent of the dietary fiber Americans eat comes from refined grains. As a population, US consumers still fall far short of reaching their daily goals for fiber as it were.
Eliminating enriched grain products will result in nutrient shortfalls. Refined grain foods that have been enriched and/or fortified help to alleviate shortfalls, including B vitamins, folic acid, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and iron. An example is that enriched grains are the largest contributor to folic acid in the American diet. Folic acid is key in preventing neural tube birth defects.
What are the different types of grains?
Also called cereals, grains and whole grains are the seeds of grasses cultivated for food. They come in many shapes and sizes, from large kernels of popcorn to small quinoa seeds.
- Whole grains. These unrefined grains haven’t had their bran and germ removed by milling; therefore, all of the nutrients remain intact. Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium, and magnesium. Whole grains are either single foods, such as brown rice and popcorn, or ingredients in products, such as buckwheat in pancakes or whole wheat in bread.
- Refined grains. In contrast to whole grains, refined grains are milled, a process that strips out both the bran and germ to give them a finer texture and longer shelf life. The refining process also removes many nutrients, including fiber. Refined grains include white flour, white rice, white bread, and degermed cornflower. Many pieces of bread, cereals, crackers, desserts, and pastries are made with refined grains, too. These processed foods will not keep your blood sugar levels steady, which is why you will be hungry again soon after consumption.
- Enriched grains. Enriched means that some or many of the nutrients that are lost during processing are added back in later.
Most refined grains are enriched. Many enriched grains are also fortified — meaning nutrients that don’t occur naturally in the food are added — with other vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and iron. Enriched grains lack fiber and are not an optimal choice because while they have traces of nutrition, many important vitamins and nutrients are lost during processing.
Opt for whole grains
Chances are you eat lots of grains already. But are they the healthiest kind? If you’re like most people, you’re not getting enough whole grains in your diet. Aim to choose whole grains for at least half of all the grains you eat. Examples of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Whole-wheat bread, pasta, or crackers
- Wild rice
It’s not always easy to tell which grains are in a particular product, especially bread. For instance, brown bread isn’t necessarily whole wheat — the color may come from added coloring. If you’re unsure something has whole grains, check the product label or the Nutrition Facts panel. Look for the word “whole” on the package, and ensure whole grains appear among the first items in the ingredient list.
How to enjoy more whole grains in your diet
Try these tips to add more whole grains to your meals and snacks:
- Enjoy breakfasts that include whole-grain cereals, such as bran flakes, shredded wheat or oatmeal.
- Substitute whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels for plain. Substitute low-fat bran muffins for pastries.
- Make sandwiches using whole-grain bread or rolls. Swap out white flour tortillas with whole-wheat versions.
- Replace white rice with kasha, brown rice, wild rice, or bulgur.
- Feature wild rice or barley in soups, stews, casseroles, and salads.
- Add whole grains, such as cooked brown rice or whole-grain bread crumbs, to ground meat or poultry for extra body.
- Use rolled oats or crushed bran cereal in recipes instead of dry bread crumbs.
To eat, or not to eat, refined grains?
It is recommended that you increase your consumption of whole grains without drastically reducing your refined grain intake. You can enjoy up to six or seven servings per day of refined grains without increasing your risk for coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, or premature death.
A lot of products will contain both whole grains and refined grains. In these cases, the placement of the whole grain or whole grain flour on the ingredients list indicates the relative amount in the product. If you’re looking for a mostly whole-grain product, the whole-grain or whole-grain flour should be either first on the ingredients list or high up, according to the Dietary Guidelines (and certainly before any refined-grain flour). Foods made from at least 50 percent whole-grain ingredients by weight may have a whole grains claim on the label, per the Dietary Guidelines. It’s a good idea to also peek at the nutrition facts to see how much fiber and protein are in the product if you want to make sure you’re getting some nutrients, even though a product contains both whole and refined grains.
So do you actually need to worry about refined carbs?
Ultimately, most of us could probably stand to eat fewer refined grains and more whole grains. At a minimum, the Dietary Guidelines recommend getting at least half of your grains from whole grains. The average refined grain intake, though, is “well above” recommended limits among men and women in most age groups. In contrast, the average whole-grain intake is “far below” the recommended amount, according to the Dietary Guidelines.
So if you notice that your own diet leans pretty heavy towards refined carbs and you want to incorporate more whole grains into your diet, you can swap out refined grains for whole-grain versions where you can—such as brown rice instead of white rice and 100 percent whole-wheat bread instead of wheat bread or white bread.
Certainly, eating a few refined grains every day, along with a healthy diet and at least half of your grain intake as whole grains, is fine. Everyone needs treats and sweets in their life to enjoy and enhance eating pleasure, for celebration, and for many other reasons. Just make sure whole grains get invited to the party, too.
- Choose My Plate: What foods are in the Grains Group? Retrieved from https://www.choosemyplate.gov/eathealthy/grains
- Self (2019): What Exactly Are Refined Carbs? Retrieved from https://www.self.com/story/what-are-refined-carbs
- The Mayo Clinic (2019): Whole grains vs. regular grains: What’s the difference? Retrieved from http://diet.mayoclinic.org/diet/eat/whole-grains-vs-regular-grains?xid=nl_MayoClinicDiet_20160421