The problem is not all grains, but refined grains
We should not fear whole grains. People have probably eating whole grains since the first person became hungry and grabbed a handful of grass seeds. These grass seeds might never have been a large part of the human diet but we surely always ate them. Like any other seeds, whole grains are a highly nutritious part of a healthy whole food diet.
But wheat and corn in particular, and grains in general, have gotten a bad reputation recently. The gluten-free and paleo enthusiasts have been waging a real war against eating grains. The problem is that the evidence cited by the grain-free movement ranges from quite flimsy to non-existent.
I fully agree with removing most or all highly refined grains from the diet. Eating refined grains is definitely not food for health. Refined, or processed, grains have had the bran and germ removed by mechanical milling. Removing the bran and germ from wheat to produce white flour also removes more than half of the B-vitamins, nearly all of the dietary fiber and 90% of the vitamin-E. Milling rice to produce white rice, or barley to make pearled barley, does the same kind of nutrient-stripping to these grains. Most of the important anti-inflammatory minerals present in whole grains are also removed by processing.
Whole grains have many proven health benefits
Whole grains, however, are quite nutritious. Unprocessed grains are good sources of soluble and insoluble fiber, potassium, selenium, copper, magnesium and B-vitamins. Grains are low in fats and high in complex carbohydrates. These qualities all do good things for our health.
The soluble and insoluble fiber of whole grains helps to remove excess cholesterol from the blood. Fiber aids the digestive process, feeding good gut bacteria, bulking up the stool and reducing cases of constipation and diverticulitis. Dietary fiber can help prevent the small blood clots that cause strokes by clogging blood vessels in the brain. Fiber also slows the breakdown of starches into glucose, preventing the huge insulin spikes provoked by highly processed grains.
The minerals from whole grains have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Reduced inflammation has a wide variety of health benefits. These minerals are also key to many metabolic processes within the body. They are the building blocks of important hormones and necessary for proper thyroid function.
The B-vitamins in whole grains are needed for many normal bodily functions. Folic acid(B-9) prevents serious birth defects in the fetus and facilitates new cell formation in adults. The other B-vitamins in whole grains play similar critical roles.
Eating whole grains extends life
There have been many studies, recent studies with large numbers of participants, showing that eating more whole grains reduces overall death rates. These are controlled scientific studies over long periods of time. Some of the studies have been run by the Harvard School of Public Health, some by the Mayo Clinic and some by other similarly prestigious organizations. The results have been truly impressive in favor of making whole grains a larger part of whole food health.
Some of the recent study findings:
Women eating two to three servings of whole grains each day are 30% less likely to die from inflammation-related conditions than women that rarely eat whole grains.
Eating whole grains instead of refined grains substantially lowers total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin levels in the blood.
Two to three servings of whole grains results in a 30% reduction in heart attacks and death from heart disease compared to eating one serving per week or less of whole grains.
Two and a half servings of whole grains each day reduced medical conditions related to heart disease by 21% compared to two servings per week or less.
Two to three servings per day of whole grains reduces type-2 diabetes development by 30% compared to those rarely eating whole grains.
Those eating five or more servings of white rice per week had 17% greater chance of developing diabetes. Those eating two or more servings of brown rice per week reduce the risk of diabetes by 11%. Replacing white rice with brown rice or other whole grains was estimated to produce a 36% reduction in diabetes rates.
Eating more whole grains lowers overall mortality rates by up to 15%.
I like whole grains. Brown, red and black rice, hulled barley, whole millet, oats, kamut and quinoa are regular parts of my diet. Whole grains are more satisfying and have more flavor than refined grains. I would much rather eat whole grains with all of nature’s nutrition still intact than eat “fortified” refined grains.
While I can understand many of the arguments made against eating grains, I think they are missing the mark. Highly processed grains do nasty things to our bodies, particularly white wheat flour and white rice. But that is a poor reason to stop eating all grains. The fact that a very small percentage of the population has developed a sensitivity to gluten is not a reason to vilify all grains. Whole grains are not the culprit here; the modern highly refined diet is.
Whole grains continue to prove their health benefits in study after study across large parts of the population. The positive health effects occur for both men and women, young and old. When I look at the study results above, I ask myself how can I not eat more grains if my chance of dying will be 15% less, my chances of diabetes and heart disease will be 30% less? How can anyone that is not actively allergic to specific grains opt to cut them out of the diet when face with this kind of evidence?
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