Low-carb, no-carb, and Paleo seem to be the diets of the times, and many people are pushing grains off their plate in an effort to control their waistline. Sadly, they may be doing their body a disservice. Whole grains have some unique properties that make them a valuable addition to everyone’s diet. They are packed full of nutrients, such as iron, B vitamins, copper, zinc, and magnesium and studies have linked diets rich in whole grains to a lower risk of colon cancer.
”The main benefit of whole cereal grains, such as wheat, oats, and barley, is in the fibre," says Teresa Fung, adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. "Cereal fibre is different from vegetable fibre or bean fibre."
Reduced risk of colon cancer has been linked to fibre from grains, but not necessarily fibre from other sources, such as fruits and vegetables. Whole grains have other health benefits as well. They lower cholesterol levels and reduce chronic inflammation, which has been linked to cancer and heart disease. Reducing chronic inflammation inside the body may also help to control blood pressure.
Other Health Benefits
Whole grains may improve blood sugar control. These grains break down slowly during digestion, which helps to keep blood sugar levels on an even keel. Similarly, some studies have linked whole grains with a lower risk of ever developing diabetes.
Whole grains may also be good for your gut. The fibre in whole grains is what's known as a prebiotic, which is a substance that helps to feed, grow, and sustain healthy bacteria in your intestines. You can purchase prebiotics or better yet, just increase your fibre intake.
You’ve probably heard of probiotics, which are beneficial organisms that can be delivered to the gut by certain foods. When you eat foods that contain probiotics, they join the existing community of some 100 trillion bacteria and other microorganisms in your digestive tract, known as the microbiome. But prebiotics are important too. They feed the bacteria in your gut and help foster a diverse, healthy microbiome, which may help ward off inflammation inside the body that can lead to chronic health conditions.
Gut bacteria are linked to the regulation of an incredible number of biological pathways including the making of serotonin, various hormone functions, and even play a role in mental health. We know that healthy, minimally processed foods promote the growth of these good bacteria.
Not All Grains Are Created Equal
Keep in mind that not all grains bring the same nutritional benefits. If you are looking to trim some carbs from your diet, the best ones to skip are refined or processed grains. They offer very little nutritional value.
Whole grains differ from their refined counterparts because they still contain all three parts of the original grain: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The bran is the outer layer of the grain, the germ is the core of the grain, and the endosperm is the inside layer.
When grains are milled, they are stripped of both the bran and the germ. This process makes the texture more appealing and extends the shelf life of the grains, but it also takes away many of the healthy components, including vitamins E and B, antioxidants, cancer-fighting plant phytonutrients, and healthy fats. Processed grains are often fortified with iron or other vitamins to make up for some of what was lost during production.
What Types of Grains Can You Get Into Your Diet?
Looking to add some whole grains into your diet? You have lots of good choices. When it comes to making grains more interesting to eat, variety is key.
Barley. This cereal grain comes from a grass plant. Cook up a batch and mix in some vegetables and salad dressing for a tasty grain salad.
Brown or wild rice. Swap white rice for brown or wild rice for better nutrition.
Bulgur. Bulgur is boiled, dried, and cracked wheat. It is a good source of potassium, B vitamins, iron, and calcium; it also has the same amount of protein as brown rice but less fat and more fibre.
Farro. A high-protein whole-grain wheat that's similar in appearance to barley, although it's slightly larger and more oblong. Like barley, it has a chewy texture and nutty flavour. It can be used in a variety of dishes like soups, salads, and even breakfast dishes.
Freekeh. A dried and roasted green wheat, typically sold as whole freekeh or cracked freekeh. Faintly smoky and chewy.
Millet. This grain is actually the small seeds of grass plants and is commonly used in places such as India and South America. It can be cooked and eaten like rice or added to cereals. It's also sometimes ground into flour and baked into bread.
Quinoa. This gluten-free, protein-rich seed is easy to cook and a great substitute for rice if you're looking to add some variety to your meals.
Spelt. This chewy and nutty grain consists of large, dark brown grains. Look for the whole spelt for complete nutritional benefits.
Steel-cut oats. These oats are made from whole oats that are essentially chopped into small pieces. They are less processed than rolled or instant oats and their texture is chewier than other types of oats.
Wheat berries. These small whole-wheat kernels are packed with nutrients and are easily added to soups.
Have fun adding flavor and textures to your meals with a variety of grains.
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