The following is the first in a three-part series focusing on carbohydrates and grains. From understanding the differences between whole grains and processed grains, to reading nutrition labels and adding ancient grains into the mix, Dr. Nelson will cover carbs from A to Z.
Carbohydrate bashing. It’s become a passionate pastime for some of us. We blame carbs for everything from our expanding waistline, to uncontrolled hunger and various health problems. But do carbs deserve the bad rap they’re getting?
Having spent many years doing individualized nutrition counseling, I’ve learned to appreciate that “one size does not fit all.” Each person is unique in how he or she thinks about—and metabolically responds—to food. While it’s important to look at the whole diet and not just focus on a single food or food category, I’ve clearly found that while one client may feel best eating a higher proportion of their calories from carbohydrate, another may thrive consuming less carbohydrate and more protein. Nutrition is a young science and there is so much that we’re still learning.
What we do know is that from a nutritional standpoint, not all carbs are created equal. Whole grain carbs that include whole-grain bread, bran cereal, oatmeal, and other unrefined grain foods (in addition to fresh fruits, dried fruits and vegetables) are an important part of a balanced diet. They provide key vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that protect our health.
In contrast, processed carbs made with refined flour products like white bread, white rice, and baked goods are lacking in nutritional value and studies show that over-consumption may contribute to negative metabolic and health changes.
The good news is that, armed with a better understanding of nutrition facts, consumers are starting to embrace the health benefits of whole grains. Surveys indicate that even though some health-conscious individuals are cutting back their intake of total carbs by eliminating refined wheat products, the demand for whole grains has actually increased. This trend fits nicely with a Mediterranean diet approach to health, which looks to lower refined carbs but increase whole grains along with fruits and vegetables. As we’ve discussed, the health benefits of eating grains depends entirely on the form in which you eat it. The truth lies in the processing.
Anatomy of a Whole Grain
It’s pretty straightforward, really. A whole grain kernel—or seed—is composed of three parts: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. Each part provides different nutrients that contribute to the health promoting benefits of whole grains.
Bran — the outer layer of the grain that protects the seed and contains fiber, antioxidants, B-vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals.
Endosperm — the middle and largest layer of the grain that provides energy for the seed in the form of carbohydrates (primarily) and proteins. Also contains small amounts of B vitamins and minerals.
Germ — the innermost portion of the grain that provides nourishment for the seed (and you) and contains B vitamins, minerals, antioxidants like vitamin E, phytonutrients, proteins and heart healthy unsaturated fats.
Whole Grains & Refined Grains—What’s the Difference?
Whole grain foods include the entire kernel. In comparison, refined grains are just the starchy endosperm—the nutrient-rich bran and germ have been removed by the milling process.
Even though many grain products are enriched (the replacement of certain vitamins and minerals removed during processing) many of the health promoting compounds originally found in whole grains—like phytonutrients—are not replaced.
Why is this a concern? As we discussed in an earlier blog post (Color Me Healthy! A Rainbow of Benefits), phytonutrients are naturally occurring compounds that give plant foods their color and flavor. Most importantly these compounds, when eaten as part of a healthy diet, can help protect us against chronic diseases.
Whole grains can improve digestive health, improve satiety, help with weight management and reduce our risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.
Take a look at your food log (Unlock the Power of Food — Get to Know You). How many servings of refined grains are you eating every day? Refined grains include foods like white flour, white bread, white rice, couscous, white pasta, flour tortillas, pitas, pretzels, baked goods like pastries, biscuits, cookies, chips.
How many whole grains are you eating every day? Examples of whole grains include brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn, quinoa, whole wheat bread, popcorn, wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, buckwheat, amaranth and millet.
At least half of the grains we eat should be whole grains. Of course, the more whole grains we choose, the better our nutrition. We should aim to eat at least 3 oz or 48 grams (3 servings) of whole grain each day. One serving = 16 grams or 1 oz of whole grains. What counts as a serving of whole grain?
- 1 slice of 100% whole grain bread
- ½ cup cooked 100% whole wheat pasta, brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, or oatmeal (1 oz dry)
- 5 small whole wheat crackers
- 2 rye crisp breads
- 1 small 100% whole wheat flour tortilla or corn tortilla (6”)
- 3 cups of popped popcorn
- 1 cup cold whole grain cereal flakes
Next time, I’ll talk about how to spot a whole grain contender from a pretender.