by Megan Schmidt, MD, United Family Medicine
Most people have a general understanding that foods made with whole wheat or other whole grains such as oats are healthier than regular “processed” or “white” grains. Some have heard the saying, “Make half your grains whole.” This phrase, however, may be confusing and it can be difficult to understand exactly what a whole grain is and why it is better. The health benefits of switching from white to whole grains are numerous and learning about how to decrease processed foods in your diet is a worthwhile endeavor.
What is a whole grain and what makes it different than processed “white” grains? A grain of wheat, oats, barley or rye contains several different parts including the bran, endosperm, and germ. These sections can be compared to the different parts of an egg. The bran would be the eggshell, wrapped around the grain providing protection. Bran has lots of fiber, which helps the human digestive system and helps up feel full longer after a meal. Bran is a wonderful thing to incorporate into your diet if you struggle with constipation. Second, the endosperm is much like the egg white. It takes up a lot of space in the egg and in the grain, it contains starch and energy. The third part, the germ, is comparable to the yolk of an egg, which provides nutrients to a growing chick. The germ of a grain provides nutrients to the plant. The nutrients found in the germ are numerous and have benefits to people too. To name just a few, these include vitamin E, folic acid, magnesium, and heart healthy polyunsaturated fats.
Unfortunately the bran (fiber) and the endosperm (vitamins and minerals) are taken out of the grain when they are processed to make them “white” like those used in white bread and the flour that makes up our pastas, pizzas, and pastries. When both the germ and the bran are removed most of the fiber and nutrients go away as well. Typically all that is left is the endosperm, which provides calories but lacks vitamins, minerals and fiber. Eating a lot of processed foods contribute to weight problems as people tend to eat more without the fiber as they feel less full. It is for this reason that we hear about the health benefits of whole grains so often.
It is a very good idea to make half of all the grains you eat in a day whole grains. For example, if you eat oatmeal with your eggs in the morning and 100% whole wheat bread for your sandwich at lunch, then it is ok to have pizza made that contains white flour for dinner. When you are shopping, you may see labels that state that a product (such as bread) “contains whole grains.” Your next step is to look at the list of ingredients. You will want to check and make sure that whole grains are listed at the beginning. By getting more whole grains in your diet, you will reap the benefits of taking in more fiber to help you digest and feel full longer after a meal, more polyunsaturated fats to protect your heart, and the vitamins and minerals your body needs.