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Breaking Down the Facts on Grains

It seems there is a huge push today to go grain and gluten-free. This can be a real challenge, because most cultures and nations rely on rice or bread as main staples in their diets.

Why is there a growing concern and trend to rid grains from everyday meals? To eat grains or not to eat grains is the billion-dollar question. There are a lot of conflicting messages out there and deciding if you can eat them or should banish them from your diet can be daunting.

Let’s just take it one small step at a time. For now, let’s start with agreeing that there are some grains out there that are better for you than others.

Processed, refined grains lose a lot of nutrient value when they are created. On the other hand, whole and sprouted grains can pack a fiber punch that can benefit both digestive and metabolic health.

Let’s take a closer look at both grain groups to see what they are all about and how they can affect your health. Once you learn, then you can decide if adding grains to or taking grains from your diet is right for you.

Good to Know: Grain Basics

Grains include an a large variety of different types of carbohydrates. Basically, grains are plant-based kernels from a variety of plants that are used to make foods such as breads, pastas, and rice products. No matter which grain you look at, they all have three major parts:

  • Bran — This outer layer of the grain contains all the fiber and is what makes whole grain products nutrient-dense.
  • Endosperm — This inner layer of the grain is the starchy flesh of the grain.
  • Germ — This is the core of the seed of the grain that contains vitamins and nutrients such as vitamin E, B vitamins, and healthy fats.

What are refined grains?

Refined grains are those grains that have their bran shell and germ removed during milling. The bran is where a lot of the good stuff is, like fiber, B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc, magnesium, and antioxidants. So, when you take it away, all you have left is the starchy flesh of the grain.

Many people find that processed foods, with the bran taken away, taste better and are easier to cook and prepare (despite the fact they provide empty calories because they are stripped of all the good stuff).

Refined grains are often enriched with vitamins to put back in what was taken out during processing. However, fiber is one nutrient that is not put back in during enrichment. Therefore, you will miss out on the health benefits of fiber if you eat mostly refined grains.

When the fiber is lost from your grains, it can have an impact on your blood glucose levels. When you eat more simple carbohydrates like refined grains, your blood glucose levels will not stay as steady as they do with more whole grains. In turn, you will feel hungry again not long after eating. This can have an impact on weight management over the long term.

Are whole grains good for you?

Whole grains are foods made from the intact grain, bran and all. They are a good source of fiber and micronutrients that have been shown to be beneficial to heart health.

Whole grains come in many forms such as corn, rice, oats, and wheat, to name a few. One type of whole grain product that has become popular is the sprouted grain.

The sprouted grain is formed when the grain seed germinates to a point where the endosperm is broken down into smaller molecules. Not only are sprouted grains easier to digest than whole grains, they still have all the fiber and nutrients of intact whole grains. You could say they are the best of both grain worlds.

So, are these whole grains good for your health? The simple answer is that they can be. Recent research shows that when refined grains are replaced with whole grains in the diet, metabolism is improved, and blood glucose levels are reduced.

Other research shows that consuming whole grains can provide similar positive effects on metabolic health as fruits and vegetables. More research will be needed to figure out the exact anti-inflammatory mechanisms of these foods, but either way, the fact that whole grains can lower inflammation in the body shows that they may, in turn, help to lower chronic disease risk.

What is certain is that whole grains can have a positive effect on heart health. A study review found that while refined grains can increase risk of cardiovascular disease, whole grains can be protective against heart health issues. Researchers suggest that though whole grains contain a rich source of fiber, other nutrients found in whole grains may also support better heart health!

Furthermore, whole grains can serve as a prebiotic to help feed the good bacteria in the gut, which benefits digestive health. Exceptions to this would include people who suffer from a digestive condition such as celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, or irritable bowel syndrome. These individuals have a hard time digesting grains, specifically wheat, barley, and rye that contain the protein gluten. In those with celiac disease, eating gluten can damage the small intestine. On a positive note, sprouted grains have been found to be less allergenic to those with grain sensitivities.

So, should I eat grains?

Whether you decide to eat grains or not will depend on your health condition and goals. Those with digestive conditions such as celiac disease or inflammatory bowel disease may have to avoid grains like wheat but may be okay consuming grains like corn, rice, quinoa, and gluten-free oats.

If you have diabetes or heart health conditions, or are at risk for such conditions, then adding grains to your diet to supplement your fiber intake may be a good idea. However, a plant-based diet rich in fruits and vegetables may provide similar benefits.

Just make sure that if you choose grains in your diet, that you choose whole or sprouted grains. But check the label for any added sugars, preservatives, or other additives, since these ingredients can offset the good nutrition from whole grain products. Though occasional sprouted grains can be good for you, they really should be eaten in moderation, and as part of a balanced diet that is rich in protein and fiber-rich fruits and vegetables.

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