September marks the beginning of fall, back to school, football season, and... National Whole Grains Month! So, what better time of year than now to celebrate the many health benefits whole grains have to offer? In an effort to encourage more whole grain consumption, the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines recommends “at least half of the grains eaten should be whole grains.”
I’m here to raise the bar and spark a movement that strives to make all of your grains “whole”. Here’s why…
1. The Whole Package
Anatomically speaking, there are three major components to a whole grain: The bran (the fiber and antioxidant-rich outer layer of the grain), the germ (packed with essential oils, B vitamins, minerals and some protein), and finally, the endosperm (the carbohydrate holding center). Together all three of these components work in symphony to deliver some pretty powerful health benefits. In contrast, when a whole grain is processed, the germ and the bran are stripped away from the grain, and what is left is a carbohydrate-dense endosperm without fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, or minerals. What was once a perfectly packaged nutrient-rich food, has become a nutrient-poor, empty carbohydrate. This is what is known as a “refined” grain, such as white rice or white flour.
2. Slow and Steady Wins the Race
With the fiber-rich bran still present, whole grains are digested much slower than their refined counterparts. Think about the chewier, nuttier texture of brown rice versus white rice. This texture slows you down because you actually need to chew your food more thoroughly before swallowing. A slower eating pace also allows you to be more aware and more responsive to your hunger and satiety cues, thus prevents overeating. It gets even better… moving from the mouth to the stomach, whole grains continue to work their magic. The muscular walls of our stomach have to work extra hard to continue to mechanically break down the fibrous bran before we can even begin to chemically digest the internal components of the grain. This extra step and added work is a good thing, as it continues to slow the entire digestive process down.
3. Filling Fiber
Thanks to their soluble fiber, whole grains actually absorb the gastric juices in our stomach and begin to SWELL. This swelling elicits a very satiating feeling of fullness that no refined grain can match. Your stomach feels nourished and happy - goodbye hunger pangs!
4. Smooth Sailing
In addition to soluble fiber, whole grains also contain another type of fiber, called insoluble fiber. This type of fiber acts as a broom, sweeping through your digestive tract, keeping it clean, and keeping things moving. Hello, regularity!
5. Stable Blood Sugar
Yet another salute to fiber: The fiber in whole grains not only slows down the digestion process, but it also slows the absorption of sugar across our intestinal wall and into our bloodstream. Meaning, the speed at which the carbohydrates enter our blood stream is reduced, causing a slower and less dramatic spike in your blood sugar levels and thus, a more controlled insulin response. This translates into longer lasting energy, with no peaks and crashes often experienced when consuming refined grains. Steady blood sugar and insulin levels also translate into more stable mood and energy levels, with less susceptibility to cravings.
6. Heart Healthy
Whole grains are effective in reducing cholesterol, lowering blood pressure, decreasing triglycerides, and supporting healthy weight management, so it’s no surprise that study after study reveals solid scientific evidence demonstrating whole grain consumption is correlated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
7. Fighting Phytochemicals
Phytochemicals are disease-fighting, health-protecting compounds. While refined grains have no allies to offer you, whole grains supply your body with an army of warriors. Phytochemicals are recognized for their ability to combat oxidation and reduce inflammation, and since inflammation has been linked with essentially every chronic disease out there, the more phytochemicals you can include in your diet, the better!
8. Sprouting Powers
With the bran, germ, and endosperm all intact, whole grains are equipped to give life! When whole grains are soaked, rinsed, drained, and kept in a moist environment, they germinate and become what is called a sprouted grain. During this process, the grain’s nutritional composition changes in order to support growth, just like a pregnant woman’s body composition alters to support the life of her child. Sprouted grains have been found to have a higher concentration of protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, and appear to be easier to digest. Because refined grains are missing the germ and bran, they are physically incapable of sprouting. If there’s a choice between eating a food that can sustain life, versus consuming something that cannot, I choose life!
9. Explore a Whole New World
An effort to consume more whole grains opens the door to a worldwide culinary journey! From farro to millet, to amaranth to buckwheat, there are so many whole grains out there that are worth exploring and offer a variety of shapes, textures, and flavors! I suggest you choose one new whole grain to try each week! Pro tip: Watch out for distracting marketing words like “multi-grain” or “stoneground.” Instead, check out the ingredient list and search for the word “whole.”
10. Versatility in the Kitchen
Whole grains are like that MVP midfielder who can do it all. They are a blank slate that can easily be incorporated into breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Whole grains are great in soups, risottos, pilafs, chilies, burrito bowls, stir-frys, stuffed peppers and more! Pro tip: Make a big batch at the beginning of the week, store half in the freezer for up to 3-6 months, and keep the rest in the refrigerator to use all week long.
Take Home Message: Whole grains have a lot to offer. While it’s great the USDA is encouraging us to make half our grain consumption whole, that leaves me to wonder: How are we supposed to achieve optimal health if 50 percent of our effort focuses on quality choices that propel us in a positive direction, while the other 50 percent of our food choices lead us in the opposite direction? Instead of retracing our steps and landing back at square one, let’s surpass the USDA’s standards and give a whole-hearted effort to maximize our whole grain intake!
This article was originally published on Philly.com’s Goal Getter column.