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Why Eating More Whole Grains Can Cause Weight Gain

Written by: Tom Nikkola – Director of Nutrition & Weight Management

Virtually everywhere you look, food advertising tells us to eat more whole grains. Eat more whole grains for “heart health.” Eat more whole grains “to lower cholesterol.” Eat more whole grains to “manage weight.”. A new study in The Journal of Nutrition suggests otherwise, at least for kids at this time.

Grain consumption and weight gain

Researchers followed 1,014 four-year-olds from 2002 until 2004. They looked at the rates of overweight and obesity over those two years. While there was an association between those who ate the highest calories in becoming overweight, there was also a link between higher grain consumption and rates of kids being overweight. The more grain they consumed, especially in boys, the more likely they were to be overweight.[i]

How could grains lead to weight gain?

To eat more whole grains, you have to take something else out of the diet.

When people are encouraged to eat more whole grains, they’re really only getting part of the story. Much of the promotion of whole grains is a bit exaggerated from what research actually shows. Studies show a couple things about whole grain consumption:

  • A higher consumption of whole grain foods can be healthier when they replace processed carbohydrate foods.
  • Studies do not show that higher amounts of whole grains compared to higher intakes of vegetables and protein are better for weight management.

Processed carbohydrates, such as sugar, refined grains, fruit juice and white bread are carbohydrates the body breaks down quickly, and which elevate blood sugar levels quickly. Some whole grains have less effect on blood sugar because they take longer to break down, but they still contain a high percentage of carbohydrate. This is where much of the confusion lies. We’re told to eat more whole grains. We’re not told to stop eating processed junk food and replace it with whole grain foods.

So, replacing processed carbohydrates with whole grains might have some health benefits, such as avoiding higher blood sugar and insulin levels, helping people feel full longer and providing some fiber. This isn’t what is marketed, though. We’re told to eat more whole grains, which can lead to more total calories consumed. It’s also more likely people will overeat these foods because they think they’re eating something healthy.

Many foods that contain whole grains are still just processed junk food.

How is it that kids who eat more whole grains are more likely to be overweight? Next time you’re grocery shopping, pay attention to the packaging. Most of today’s processed foods, like cereal, granola bars, crackers, chips, pasta and other kid-targeted foods bear label claims such as, “contains whole grains” or “high in whole grains.” These foods are still highly processed. They just have some whole grains added to them.

The kids in the study who were gaining weight were eating higher amounts of whole grains, but that doesn’t mean they were eating whole foods. In fact, one of the cereal companies you’ll find in the store feature the label claim “America’s #1 Source of Whole Grains for Breakfast.” It’s just not the same as eating whole food whole grains like quinoa, bulgur, and other real-food whole grains.

Whole grain foods are usually high in carbohydrates and low in protein and fat.

Almost all the calories in whole grains come from carbohydrate. Even though they may be better than sugar or other processed carbohydrates, they’re still very high in carbohydrates. Those misled into the idea that whole grains are health food may neglect the fact that vegetables, protein, nuts, seeds and oils are actually far better for weight management and have been shown in many studies to result in better weight loss than higher-carbohydrate diets.


If the study referenced here showed eating higher amounts of whole grains was associated with lower body weights, it would be all over the news. This study flies in the face of what many food advertisements claim, so it probably won’t be promoted much. Nevertheless, those who are serious about combating the obesity epidemic in kids or in adults should take it seriously. The study showed associations, not causation, but is aligned with many other studies that show lower total carbohydrate consumption is better for health and weight management.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

[i] Dubios L, Carter MA, Farmer A, et al. Higher Intakes of Energy and Grain Products at 4 Years of Age Are Associated with Being Overweight at 6 Years of Age. J Nut. Sep 2011:doi:10.3945/jn.111.143347

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Reader Comments (2)

I strongly disagree with with the logic in this post. The push to eat more whole grains is meant to encourage people to stop eating all the refined grains and substitute whoe grains or at least 50% or more of grain consumed should be whole grain. The USDA never said grain should replace other foods. The problem with americans in general is that they eat huge amounts of grain based baked goods (most with refined grain and little or NO nutrion) If people ate a limited amount of whole grain, balanced with protien, vegetables and fruits they would NOT be obese! Kids now days are eating granola bars and drinking fruit drink, that is why they are obese. They need a nutritious home cooked meal every day to help them learn about how to eat healthy and maintain a healthy weight!

Sheryl Grover
Diabetes Prevention Specialist
Twin Cities YMCA

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSheryl Grover

Sheryl, I think your argument is exactly what Tom is saying. The first two bullet points he mentions correlate with your points. So what do you disagree with?

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Schaar

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