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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

STEPHANIE ZONIS is a Contributing Editor to THE NIBBLE.

 

 

October 2006
Last Updated May 2013

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Rice, Bean & Grains

Whole Grain Cereal Nutrition

Page 3: Why Whole Grains Are So Important

 

This is Page 3 of a 7-page article. Click the black links below to view the other pages.

 

Why Whole Grains Are Important In Health and Nutrition

If you’re like most Americans, you probably grew up eating super-refined white flour and heavily processed grain foods, including breads and cereals. Why change now? Why should you bother to get the recommended 48 grams of whole grains per day? Someone once said that people spend too much time worrying about how they might die, rather than how well they might live. And there’s overwhelming evidence that a diet including a sufficient quantity of whole grains can result in your leading a healthier, and therefore better, life. If you want to start living better right now, you can jump down to how much whole grain food you need to eat every day.

Whole grains contain far more fiber than heavily-processed grains; whole grains also offer protein, carbohydrates and some trace minerals (including iron, selenium, copper, chromium and molybdenum). But there’s more: Whole grains offer the phytochemicals (a.k.a. phytonutrients) that get lost in the refining process. A phytochemical is a fancy term for a naturally-occurring compound in plants that is believed to provide health benefits.

You’re probably familiar with some of the phytonutrients in fruits and vegetables by now, such as flavonoids, carotene, lycopene and lutein. Some are antioxidants, some are not. But whole grains contain phytonutrients that usually aren’t the same as those in fruits and vegetables. And it isn’t just a question of isolating a beneficial nutrient, then taking it in pill form. Many vitamin supplements are poorly absorbed by the human system, and some scientists believe that phytochemicals act together in ways not yet well understood. These processes are called “whole grain synergy.”

Human nutrition is still a young science, and it’s still best to obtain vital nutrients from food sources. As Patricia Floyd of Vermont Morning says, “Food is your first line of defense.” Defense? Against what?

  Whole Grain Bagel
Make your bagel a whole-grain bagel. This one is from French Meadow Bakery, a NIBBLE Top Pick Of The Week.

Whole Grains & Obesity

Obesity is a plague in the industrialized nations of the world. Even worse than the depression and social isolation it can cause is the fact that it leaves people open to a host of other serious health issues, including everything from gallstones to gastric reflux disease, Type 2 diabetes to reproductive problems.

  • Numerous studies have shown that individuals who eat more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables weigh less over time than those who do not.
  • A 2001 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition noted the inverse correlation between higher fiber intake and obesity and found that fiber intake is the single most effective predictor of obesity.
  • Two years later, another study in the same publication linked higher whole grain intake with a lowered risk of major weight gain.
  • There has even been a published finding that, while there may be little difference in total caloric intake between obese and non-obese individuals, the obese individuals consumed more fat, less fiber and fewer carbohydrates.

As is the case with any fiber-rich food, whole grains are digested slowly, so they help people to feel fuller for a longer time and on fewer calories. Start your day with a whole grain hot cereal, and you may be less likely to reach for a doughnut during your coffee break. And, while most whole grain hot cereals do contain some fat, it tends to be present in small amounts. If you’re trying to maintain or lose weight, those are important considerations.

Whole Grains & Digestive Health

How’s your gut been lately? Gut health is something many people would rather not discuss, but whole grain foods are especially important here. As of 2004, the annual American expenditure on laxatives was $800 million. According to the American Dietetic Association, “Fiber in mixed diets, legumes, and whole- and high-fiber grain products are particularly effective promoters of normal laxation.” In other words, if you consume enough fiber, you probably won’t require laxatives at all.

  • The American Heart Association specifies that insoluble fiber, the type found in most grains, is especially valuable here (soluble fiber aids in the prevention of heart disease; see more below).
  • The American Dietetic Association also states that “A high-fiber diet is standard therapy for diverticular disease of the colon.”
The disease, called diverticulosis is characterized by diverticula, which are herniations of the mucosal layer through weak regions (around blood vessels) in the colon musculature. A diet containing adequate fiber prevents diverticulosis in otherwise healthy people. Further, the ADA notes that consuming foods rich in fiber may protect against both large bowel and colorectal cancer; there is “extensive epidemiologic evidence” of the former and “substantive evidence” of the latter. Other sources suggest that low dietary fiber intake may increase the risk of both ulcers and appendicitis.
  Ex-Lax
Eat whole grains, toss away the pharmaceuticals.

The Ohio State University Medical Center reports that an astonishing 8.7% of Americans have diabetes, a metabolic disorder in which insufficient insulin is secreted (in some cases, cells do not respond appropriately to the insulin produced). Insulin is required to help the body convert glucose from food to energy, and, unless diabetes is controlled, diabetics can have excessive amounts of blood glucose. The blood glucose passes into the urine and is excreted, leaving the body without its main source of fuel.

There are three types of diabetes: Type 1, Type 2 and gestational (which occurs during pregnancy). Of those in this country who have diabetes, 90% to 95% have Type 2 diabetes, in which the body makes some insulin, but not enough (alternatively, the insulin made may not be properly used). Type 2 diabetes can sometimes be controlled through diet, weight loss, and exercise. Whole grains may be useful here, too. They are part of a good diet and can help control excessive weight gain, but there is speculation that they increase sensitivity to insulin, helping the body to use more of it or use it more effectively. It’s known that diets rich in whole grains slow carbohydrate metabolism, and this, along with the fact that fiber-rich diets reduce serum lipids and serum insulin, may give some protection against diabetes. This should be an especially important finding for particular ethnic groups who are more prone to diabetes (such groups include African Americans, Latino Americans, Indigenous Americans, and Indigenous Alaskans). 

Whole grains have probably gained the most fame for their possible role in preventing heart disease and some cancers. Given that cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., perhaps whole grains deserve more prominence in the American diet!

The American Dietetic Association notes that consuming foods rich in fiber may protect against both large bowel and colorectal cancer. There is “extensive epidemiological evidence” of the former and “substantive evidence” for the latter. Some studies have hinted that there may be a reduced incidence of breast cancer in women who eat a lot of whole grains, but to date there seems to be insufficient evidence to establish any correlation. In true better-late-than-never fashion, it’s finally being recognized that, with the exception of skin and lung cancers, diet plays a vital role in cancer prevention and even treatment. It’s thought that particular phytochemicals in whole grains, including lignans, phytoesterols, and polyphenolics, protect against cancer. Some of these are found in fruits and vegetables, but in more limited quantities.
  Whole Grain Pasta
Eat whole grain pasta and rice, and fight diabetes and diverticulitis. Photo by Viktors Kozers | SXC.

Whole grain synergy may come into play with respect to GI cancers. While the entire process is too lengthy to be discussed here, carbohydrates, fiber, and inulin may ferment in the gut, lowering colonic pH (a higher colonic pH is a cancer risk). This fermented matter may act as a prebiotic, favoring beneficial bacteria in the colon, as well as decreasing transit time of food in the digestive tract (if digested matter contains toxins which are moved out of the gut speedily, the toxins will have no time to interact with gut tissue).    

And what of heart disease, the number one cause of death in industrialized countries? It’s been demonstrated that fiber, especially soluble fiber, can reduce serum lipids, total cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol—all factors in heart disease development. While oats have the highest proportion of soluble fiber of any grain, barley is another great source (some legumes and fruits and vegetables are also excellent sources). Whole grain synergy may be a factor here, too; the antioxidants, vitamin E, phytoestrogens and other phytochemicals found in whole grains may help to keep hearts healthy. Of course, factors in the development of heart disease include obesity, diabetes, and high cholesterol levels, and evidence that whole grains as part of a sensible diet can prevent such conditions has already been shown.  

You’ll notice a lot of qualifying statements in the above paragraphs. Part of that is the nature of medical research these days, but there’s more to it in this case. It’s exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to isolate whole grains as the sole dietary champions in any kind of study. Why? People who consume a lot of whole grain foods have also been found to take better care of themselves in general than non-whole grain eaters. Whole grain consumers eat more fruits and vegetables, ingest less fat, get more exercise, watch their weight more closely, tend to be nonsmokers, etc. Are whole grains sexy? Are they the fabled dietary “magic bullet” for which Americans are constantly searching? Of course they’re not. But they are an invaluable part of an intelligent, practical eating plan for the vast majority of people. And there’s one more important aspect to whole grain hot cereals: They’re economical. You won’t need to spend a lot of money to eat well. Whole grains (and whole grain cereals) often double or triple in quantity as they cook, so a minimal amount can fill you up.

How Much Whole Grain Food You Need To Eat Each Day

So, how do you get those three servings (one ounce or equivalent) of whole grains each day? Americans eat plenty of grain—bread, pasta, rice, etc. You just need to substitute whole grains for refined grains. A bagel would be two servings, for example, a wee half cup of cooked oatmeal (an instant packet) is one serving.

Whole Grain Food Amount (Equivalent To One Ounce)
Bagel 1/2
Bread 1 slice
Cereal 1/2 cup cooked or 1 ounce of ready-to-eat
Crackers 5 to 7 small crackers
Muffin 1 mini
Pita 1 mini or 1/2 large
Popcorn 3 cups
Rice (Black, Brown, Red) 1/2 cup cooked
Tortilla 1 small
Waffle or Pancake 1 small
   

On page 5 of this article, we have suggestions on how to work more whole grains into your diet, plus links to recipes.

Continue to Page 4: Why People Don’t Eat More Whole Grain Foods

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