They’re always present on lists of foods we should be eating, but what is it about whole grains that make them so good for us? David Goding explores the nutritional properties of whole grains and shows you how to make the most of them for optimal health
We know that whole grains are good for us, just as we know that eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is beneficial to our health. But unfortunately, most of us seem to take very little notice, with the great majority of grains and grain-based products being consumed in their processed, refined form, which invariably sees the grain stripped of its health-giving properties.
“During the milling process, the bran and the germ, which contain valuable nutrients, are removed, leaving the endosperm,” explains Judith Finlayson, author of The Complete Whole Grains Cookbook. “While the endosperm is the largest part of the grain, it also has the fewest vitamins and minerals.”
Whole grains, on the other hand, are a rich source of phytochemicals, enzymes, fibre, vitamins and minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, which combine to give us a huge range of health benefits, including the ability to dramatically lower cardiovascular disease, balance blood sugar and even help us lose weight.
What are whole grains?
Whole grains are the seeds of certain plants that come under the blanket term of grain crops. These include commonly consumed grains such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, rice and corn. To make them edible, the outer layer or husk of the grain is removed, leaving the ‘berry’ or ‘grout’ – the whole grain.
The whole grain consists of three layers: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The outer layer of the grain – the bran – contains essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals; the large middle part – the endosperm – consists mainly of starch and the nutrient-rich inner core, the germ, contains several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, folate, phosphorus and magnesium.
The three layers of the grain need to be intact in order for a food to qualify as ‘whole’. Typical examples of whole grain foods include ‘wholemeal’ or ‘wholegrain’ breads or crispbreads, brown or wild rice, wholegrain breakfast cereals, puffed whole grains, oatmeal, whole or cracked wheat, buckwheat, couscous, popcorn and bulgar. Wholemeal bread or wholemeal flour is simply whole grains milled to a finer texture and should still contain all three layers of grain.
Refined grains and cereals are prevalent in the western diet, in the form of white bread, biscuits, cakes, pasta, white rice, refined breakfast cereals and pizza.
“Although refined grains are subsequently enriched with the addition of some nutrients, such as riboflavin, thiamine and iron, they are far less nutritious than whole grains,” says Finlayson.
How do they benefit our health?
Numerous studies have found that a diet high in whole grains rather than refined grains lowers your risk of developing several diseases. A large scale review of the evidence surrounding the health benefits of whole grains by the American Society for Nutrition concluded that whole grains played a major role in lowering the risk of chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, cancer (particularly colorectal cancer), and diabetes. It also contributed to body weight management and gastrointestinal health, the study found.
The reason given for such wide-sweeping benefits was the synergistic effect of essential macro and micronutrients found in whole grains. So enthused were the researchers that they highlighted the need for further examination into the role of wholegrain foods in disease prevention to gain a greater understanding of how exactly it works.
A separate US study put a figure on just how beneficial whole grains can be, stating that consuming an average of 2.5 servings of whole grains a day could lower your risk of cardiovascular disease by as much as 21 per cent.
According to another study conducted by Harvard University, women who regularly ate two to three serves of whole grains a day were 30 per cent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes, compared to women who rarely ate whole grains.
A diet high in whole grains is also excellent for digestion and maintaining bowel health.
“Scientists are actively engaged in studying substances contained in whole grains, such as lignans and oligosaccharides, which function as prebiotics,” says Finlayson.
“Prebiotics are ingredients that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria, such as lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. By promoting the growth of beneficial intestinal flora, prebiotics help to keep your gut in tip top health.”
How can I get more whole grains in my diet?
To get more whole grains into your diet – most people could do with more – you need to be discerning with your food choices. Read labels and packaging and look for the words ‘wholegrain’ or ‘wholemeal’ in foods such as bread and breakfast cereals. Multigrain can be beneficial but is often misleading, as it is often produced with white flour with added whole grains. Likewise, terms such as ‘100% wheat’, ‘cracked wheat’ and ‘stone-ground’ do not mean foods are made from whole grains.
Look at what you are eating in your current diet and try replacing – either partially or completely – the refined grain products, such as white flour, white rice and pasta, with wholegrain options. Nutritionists recommend that at least half of your daily grain intake should be wholegrain.
“If you find grains difficult to eat, another easy way to benefit from the goodness of whole grains is by using the flakes,” says nutritionist and author of The Food Bible, Judith Wills.
“These can be soaked overnight with nuts, seeds and dried fruits to make a soft muesli or they can be made into a porridge. Buckwheat, millet and quinoa flakes are especially easy as they can be prepared without cooking.”
Other ideas for getting more whole grains in your diet include wholegrain pita breads and wraps, corn tortillas and wholegrain English muffins. When cooking soups and casseroles try adding barley, bulghur or wild rice. With your favourite baking recipes, replace half of the white flour with whole wheat flour for virtually the same result.