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“Healthy” whole grains and health!

Firstly, what are whole grains?

Technically, whole grains are the seeds of cereal grasses. In their natural “whole” state, grains have a hard, inedible husk that covers three edible parts:

  • Bran: fibre

  • Germ: contains some B vitamins, minerals, fat, and protein

  • Endosperm: major portion of the grain; mainly starch with a small amount of protein, vitamins and minerals.

Nutritionally speaking, whole grains have had their outer inedible husks removed but retain all three edible parts of the seed. By contrast, refined grains like white flour (including unbleached wheat flour) and white rice have their bran and germ removed during milling, leaving only the endosperm.

Most whole grains have undergone some processing. For instance, whole wheat is ground or crushed to create whole-wheat flour; old-fashioned oats are steamed and rolled in order to make them more palatable and easier to digest.

Among the dozens of types of whole grains that exist, some of the most well-known and widely consumed include:

  • Barley

  • Brown rice

  • Bulgur

  • Corn

  • Oats

  • Rye

  • Whole wheat

  • Wild rice

Over the past several decades, the term whole grains has become very popular among the health conscious. Manufacturers often include bold, eye-catching messages like “Contains 14g of whole grains” on boxes of cereal, whole-wheat pasta, granola bars and similar products, which often contain high levels of added sugar.

In fact, a 2013 review of more than 500 grain-based products found that those displaying a “whole grains” stamp contained more sugar than similar products without the stamp.


Nutrition in whole grains

Are whole grains really a nutrient-packed energy source? That depends what we compare them to. While some types contain a bit more protein, fibre and micronutrients (vitamins / minerals) than others, they aren’t necessarily nutrient-rich when considered in the context of their carbohydrate and calorie content.

For instance, 40g of oats — often suggested as an ideal meal to start your day — provides about 10 grams of protein (although this is considered “incomplete” protein since it lacks some of the essential amino acids), 8 grams of fibre (daily recommendations are around 30 grams per day), and about 10-20% of daily thiamine, iron, magnesium, biotin, selenium and zinc requirements. However, it also contains about 46 to 48 grams of net carbs, even when prepared without milk, fruit, sweeteners or other additives. It’s recommended that very low carbohydrate diets contain less than 20g of net carbs a day.

If you’re using two slices of whole wheat bread to build your sandwich at lunch then that will provide you with about 8 grams of (incomplete) protein, a quarter of your daily selenium needs, and small amounts of thiamin, niacin, and magnesium. This contains 35 grams of net carbs and a comparably low 6 grams of fibre.

Brown rice’s nutritional profile is similar to that of whole wheat bread and oats, although even lower in protein and fibre.

Even quinoa, known for being higher in protein and fibre than rice or pasta, is relatively high in net carbs, meaning that you’d need to eat a number of portions a day (and a lot of carbs!) to meet micronutrient requirements. For people who would like to follow a lower carbohydrate way of eating, there are more suitable ways of getting the vitamins and minerals you need. But compared to someone eating exclusively refined grains, yes there are health benefits for sure.

Whole grains contain fibre and phytonutrients, which are compounds found in plants that help protect cells from damage and reduce inflammation in the body.

If we compare it to plant-derived foods containing these phytonutrients including olives, nuts and even oils, then it’s not necessary to eat whole grains to get these benefits.

Since whole grains are promoted as a healthy product – they are typically chosen and eaten by people who prioritise health – so these people not only eat whole grains, they tend to engage in a whole host of healthy behaviours too – like not smoking, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, and exercising.

Take for example an area where people live to be 100 years old, far more frequently than the general population. They are reported to eat lots of whole grains. But we don’t know if they are healthier because of the whole grains or because they tend to practice many other health-conscious behaviours like exercising regularly, drinking alcohol in moderation, avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages and cooking fresh food at home on a regular basis.

Whole grains can increase blood sugar more than commonly believed

Whole grains rank quite high on the glycemic index (GI) list. (This is the scale that measures how much a specific food raises blood sugar).

The amount of processing grains undergo will influence their GI. Yet even minimally processed oats have a moderate GI of 55, and quick-cooking oatmeal has a GI over 70.

By contrast, cabbage and spinach have very low GIs of 15 and 6, and meat, fish, cheese and fats are zero-GI foods.

Studies have shown that whole grain does raise people’s blood sugar levels less than refined grains do in most experimental studies. But what is the blood sugar response to an entirely grain-free diet?

Replacing refined grains with whole grains likely has significant benefits for blood sugar control. However, even whole grains raise blood glucose, so completely avoiding grains would likely result in even better blood sugar control.

So, in summary, if you eat whole grains for extra fibre, instead of a diet high in refined grains, you will be able to see health benefits, but you could also get a wide range of different fibres within a low-carbohydrate diet. Examples of these alternatives include nuts, seeds, avocados, low-carbohydrate fruits and non-starchy vegetables and the health benefit through the increase of micronutrient (minerals and vitamins) will be far higher.

Here are some examples of fruit low in sugar and best for your health (all numbers are net carbs per 100g)

Strawberries, Raspberries, blackberries 5g carbs.

Satsuma’s 8g carbs.

Peach 7g carbs.

Honey dew melon 6g carbs.

Fresh apricot 7g carbs.

Grapefruit 7g carbs.

Vegetable low in sugar (all numbers are net carbs per 100g):

• Cauliflower 3g carbs.

• Cabbage 3g carbs.

• Avocado 2g carbs.

• Broccoli 4g carbs.

• Zucchini 3g carbs.

• Spinach 1g carbs.

• Asparagus 2g carbs.

• Kale 3g carbs.

• Green beans 4g carbs.

• Brussels sprouts 5g

Grains in comparison (all numbers are net carbs per 100g):

· White bread 49g

· Wholemeal bread 41g

· White pasta 31.2g

· White rice 28g

· Braun rice 23g

· Couscous 23g

Please get in touch if you would like to find out how a healthy low carbohydrate diet could improve your health.

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