Why are whole grains better for your health?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published March 15, 2019

Key Takeaways

You’ve likely heard that whole grains are so much healthier than refined grains like white bread. But why exactly is that?

If you answered lack of bran, or the fiber that is removed during milling, then you’re partially right. But during processing, the germ—or nutrition-rich core—is also removed.

Let’s take a closer look at whole grains, with an eye toward health benefits.

Anatomy of a kernel

Whole-grain kernels consist of three parts: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Each part offers special nutrients, which promote specific health benefits.

The bran is rich in fiber, as well as antioxidants, B vitamins, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, and phytochemicals.

The germ is the core—from which part the seed actually grows. This section is rich in antioxidants, B vitamins, healthy fats, vitamin E, and phytochemicals.

The endosperm is the interior, starch-rich layer that contains carbohydrates, protein, and traces of B vitamins and minerals. It’s the least healthy part of the kernel and what is found in refined products after the bran and germ have been removed.

Health effects

Researchers have shown that the quality of whole grains consumed is at least equally important as the quantity. So, you don’t have to fret about whole grains being unhealthy when eating them in reasonable quantities.

Bran and fiber impede the metabolism of starch to glucose, thus regulating serum blood glucose levels.

Fiber pushes waste through your digestive tract. It also helps decrease cholesterol levels. Furthermore, fiber could help prevent heart attack and stroke caused by emboli.

Phytochemicals and essential minerals like copper, magnesium, and selenium offer anticancer benefits.

Disease prevention

Many researchers have looked into the health benefits of whole grains and have found a link to better health.

In the Iowa Women’s Health Study, whole-grain consumption was linked to fewer deaths from inflammatory and infectious etiologies in women, such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, asthma, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.

With respect to heart health, whole grains have been found to lower total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein, triglyceride, and insulin levels.

In the Nurses’ Health Study, women who ate two to three servings of whole-grain products per day were 30% less likely to experience a heart attack or die from heart disease during a 10-year period vs women who ate less than one serving per week.

According to combined results of high-power studies, eating an additional two servings of whole grains per day was associated with a 21% decrease in the risk of type 2 diabetes. Additionally, the fiber, nutrients, and phytochemicals found in whole grains could improve insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism, as well as decrease the absorption of food. These combined effects can also help to prevent blood-sugar spikes.

The fiber found in whole grains can help to ward off digestive conditions such as constipation and diverticulosis.

With respect to cancer, the health benefits of whole grains are mixed, with only some studies showing benefit.

Choosing whole grain

With a recommended 2,000-calorie diet and no celiac disease, you should eat 6 oz of grain foods per day, with at least 3 oz being 100% whole grain, according to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Moreover, the guidelines recommend focusing on nutrient-dense foods, which may include whole grains.

While strolling through your local grocery store, check for the following whole grains listed as first or second on ingredient lists:

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Kamut
  • Spelt
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Rye
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur
  • Corn
  • Oats
  • Sorghum
  • Whole wheat
  • Wild rice

Ingredients that could refer to either whole-grain or whole-wheat containing products include:

  • Wheat
  • Organic flour
  • Semolina
  • Stone ground
  • Dorum wheat

The following terms do not refer to whole-grain foods:

  • Degerminated (found on corn meal packaging)
  • Wheat germ
  • Bran
  • Enriched flour
  • Wheat flour

The term “multigrain” can refer to a mixture of several whole and refined grains.

The word “fiber” on packaging is nonspecific, and not necessarily reflective of a whole-grain or healthy food. Different grains offer different amounts of fiber. For instance, rice has only 3.5% fiber, whereas barley and bulgur contain over 15% fiber. Moreover, fiber can be supplemented in foods without the use of whole grains.

Finally, the Whole Grain Stamp is a trusty marker found on food products. The stamp is issued by the Oldways Whole Grain Council, and is designed to help consumers identify authentic, healthy, whole-grain products.

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