Can whole grains improve your health?

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Dec 09, 2014 by James

Whole grains are largely absent from the British diet; although the consumption of at least three servings a day is ideal, almost a fifth of Brits never eat them at all. Furthermore, although whole grains are widely touted as a good thing when it comes to healthy eating, the truth seems to be a little more complicated than it may at first appear.

 

Definition

The general definition of a whole grain is a grain that still has all of its original bran, endosperm and germ. In their natural state, whole grains are packed full of protein, minerals, healthy fats and vitamins. They can also be a great source of fibre.

For some time now, whole grains have been promoted as part of a healthy diet; however, it is important to point out that this is on the understanding that whole grains are used to replace - not to add to - the unhealthy grains that people are already eating.

The form of whole grains is also important. When whole grains are processed in factories, for example when they are puffed or flaked to make breakfast cereals, many of the health benefits can be lost and actively unhealthy effects may be introduced.

For example, some processing techniques reduce the antioxidant and fibre content of whole grains. Processing can also cause the sugars in whole grains to be absorbed more quickly, which can lead to unhealthy side effects such as blood sugar spikes.

Therefore, it is important to eat whole grains in place of, not as well as, other grain-based foods, and to eat them in as un-refined a form as possible. Also, look out for unhealthy additives such as refined sugars and fats that might find their way into whole-grain products in the factory: a home-made flapjack made from oats and honey is likely to be much more healthy than many shop-bought equivalents.

 

Benefits

When eaten in as natural a form as possible, and as a replacement for products based on refined grains, whole grains may:

  • Reduce cholesterol and improve arterial health.
  • Reduce the risks of stroke; type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • Make it easier to maintain a healthy weight and good gastro-intestinal health.
  • Lower the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Prevent gum disease and tooth loss.

 

Some grains are associated with particular benefits, such as: 

  • Barley - may help to lower cholesterol.
  • Bulgur - quick to cook, high in fibre.
  • Corn/maize - high in antioxidants.
  • Quinoa - full of protein and vital amino acids.

 

Shopping

When shopping for whole grains, it is important to pay attention to labelling. Products labelled as wholemeal, granary or multi-grain are not necessarily whole grain: for a product to be whole grain, it must contain the bran, endosperm and germ.

Products that are available in whole grain versions include pasta, bread and pastries, cereals and flour. However, an easy and possibly healthier way to consume whole grains is by cooking them from scratch in dishes such as porridge, crumble toppings both savoury and sweet, and in snacks like flapjacks and biscuits.