In recent years there has been a spread of misconception regarding carbohydrates and their effect on overall health. This has led many to attempt blanket-bans of any and all carbohydrates. The problem with this is that carbohydrate-rich foods have different nutritional profiles and omitting them entirely can lead to some nutritional deficiencies. Overall, it's best to think in terms of food, not macronutrients. Protein isn't all good or all bad. Fats aren't all awful or all amazing. The same for carbs. Some are helpful and some are less so. And in the category of "helpful carbs" sit whole grains.
Whole grains are a staple food in many cultures around the world. In some regions, they represent the main source of calories. Why is this? Generally, whole grains provide protein, complex carbohydrates, and a range of vitamins and minerals, including iron and zinc. Researchers know this: there are studies that show that inclusion of whole grains in a person's diet is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease, strokes, cancer and type 2 diabetes. Whole grains are satisfying, versatile and nutritious. And yes, they are mostly carbohydrates.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, "WHOLE GRAIN"?
A product can be deemed "whole grain" when the kernel contains all three parts: the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. The nutritious-ness of whole grain products comes from the presence of these three parts. Specifically:
- The bran is the outer layer. It supplies B vitamins, zinc, magnesium, iron, and copper, plus natural chemical compounds like antioxidants and phytochemicals.
- The germ is the core of the seed where growth occurs. It is rich in healthy fats, vitamin E, B vitamins, as well as antioxidants and phytochemicals.
- The endosperm is the middle layer. It contains carbohydrates, protein and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.
Naturally, when we think of grains, we think of traditional products like wheat, corn and oats. But other cereals and pseudocereals can also come under the umbrella of "whole grains":
- Cereals are members of the grass family and consist of a fruit coat surrounding the seed. Barley, fonio, millet, rice, rye, sorghum, wild rice and varieties of wheat like spelt, farro, durum and Kamut can all be whole grain.
- Pseudocereals such as amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat are not members of the grass family, but because of the high starch content in their seeds and their use in cereal-like products, it has been suggested that they can be classified as whole grain together with the cereals in the grass family. These seeds contain no gluten and are therefore suitable alternatives for people with celiac disease.
After harvesting, many grains go through a process called milling. This usually removes the bran and the germ from the grain, leaving only the endosperm. While this gives the grain a finer texture, makes it easier to chew, and increases its shelf life, it also means that many valuable nutrients are taken out. However, steps have been taken to offset this loss of nutritional value. Alongside wholegrain products (from which no part of the kernel has been extracted) and refined grains (from which specific parts have been extracted, depending on the end-use) there are also "fortified grains".
Wheat, for example, is one of the most widely consumed grains in the Western world. This means that its nutritional content gets a lot of attention. Consequently, in many countries, refined wheat and white flour are now fortified with vitamins and minerals. The original aim of the fortification of refined grains was simple: replace nutrients lost in the refining process. But now we are seeing further fortification with nutrients that weren't part of the kernel in the first place. This is the reason why many dietary guidelines from around the world recommend eating a mix of whole and fortified grains. However, fiber, phytochemicals and some micronutrients like magnesium are lost during the refining process and are not replaced during fortification.
At this point, I'm hoping that you recognize that all carbs aren't bad. I'm also hoping that you're considering adding whole grains into your diet, perhaps in place of refined grain products and foodstuffs with high amounts of sugar. If you are, then here are some ideas for where to start.
- At breakfast switch from a cereal made from refined grains to a whole grain, fiber-rich, low sugar breakfast cereal. Or simply prepare a porridge by cooking oats, buckwheat or quinoa.
- At lunch or dinner, swap white rice or refined grain pasta for brown rice or whole grain pasta.
- Aim to try one new whole grain a week (farro, amaranth, bulgur, millet, or barley for example). Most of these go well with vegetables and make a simple packed lunch or quick dinner.
- Introduce a portion of whole grains anytime you have soup, salads and stir-fries. Barley, bulgur and quinoa are great options here.
- Start having whole grains as snacks. For example, air-popped popcorn can be considered whole grain and is a good way to consume more fiber.
If you do get started with whole grains, it's likely you'll notice a few other things. The first is that whole grains, while cooked in the same manner, take longer to cook than their refined counterparts. There's not much that can be done about this, although one could decide to make double or triple the amount required for a meal and store it in the fridge for later use.
Second, you'll likely notice that some whole grains like wheat, barley and rye contain a naturally occurring protein called gluten. While gluten can cause an autoimmune reaction in certain individuals (such as those with celiac disease) most people can and have eaten gluten for most of their lives without any adverse reaction. Despite this, the demand for gluten-free products - especially baked goods like cookies, breads and snacks - has grown and many people now opt for them because they believe it represents a “healthier” choice. And most of the time it just means that the product has no gluten, not that is more nutritious. But if you do need to avoid gluten, don't worry. There is a long list of whole grains that are naturally gluten-free; quinoa, corn, rice, buckwheat, millet, amaranth and teff contain all the benefits of whole grains without any of the gluten.
Third, fiber. Not only has it been proven by a significant body of research to promote good health and reduce the risk of several chronic diseases, it has also been shown to positively affect satiation. Fiber makes you feel full, and generally, more fiber is consumed in a diet of mostly whole grains than a diet of mostly refined grains.
Finally, I suspect you've been confused while shopping for whole grains. Many foods marketed as "whole grain" actually aren't. For example, a breakfast cereal's packaging could state that it is "whole grain" and a "source of fiber", but in reality it could be mostly refined grains and sugar, with a token amount of whole grain. Since manufacturers must list their ingredients in descending order, the simplest thing to do is check a product's nutrition label. Look for "whole grain _____" to be one of the first ingredients listed. That way, you'll end up with 100% whole grain flour instead of white flour with added whole grains.
DON'T DROP CARBOHYDRATES
Carbohydrates are needlessly demonized. Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Refined grains and products with high sugar are not ideal, but whole grains? Whole grains are nutritious, versatile, and delicious, as well as being diverse in number. So instead of declaring war on carbs, try going whole for a change.