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What Role Should Grains Play in Your Diet?

They’ve been a common staple for many of us - perhaps throughout our lives. Cereal, toast or oatmeal for breakfast. Sandwiches for lunch. Rolls or rice with dinner. Popcorn, crackers or pretzels as a late evening snack. The list could easily go on…. 

So, what’s with the sudden controversy around these particular carbs? 

From nutrition guidelines that suggest several servings of “whole grains" each day to popular diets that forgo grains altogether, the question of how much to eat - or whether to eat them - maybe doesn’t feel as clear as it used to.

Let’s take apart the question by looking at what constitutes "whole grain," what’s behind the current recommendations for grain intake, and how we can make the right decision about the role of grains in our Healthy Way of Eating plan. 

What are grains anyway?

Simply put, a grain is defined as a single fruit or seed of a cereal crop. Grains are also called kernels (as in corn) or seeds of a variety of cereal crops used as food. 

Grains are cultivated from dozens of different plants in the grass family: wheat, barley, rice, oats, rye, corn, millet, amaranth, quinoa, teff, sorghum, and others. They’ve been grown as a source of dietary energy for thousands of years – for both humans and livestock.

Now for a little closer inspection… (Warning: this might induce flashbacks from high school science or nutrition class.) 

The actual grain seeds themselves have three distinct components: bran, germ, and endosperm.

The bran is the tough, outer shell often called a hull. It contains antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber (mostly insoluble “roughage”). The bran is mostly indigestible and passes through the digestive tract unscathed, just providing bulk to our stool.

The germ is the embryo, which could sprout into a new plant if given the right conditions (soil, moisture, warmth). It contains B vitamins, a small amount of protein, minerals and some healthy fats. 

Finally, the endosperm (largest part of the grain) is the seed’s food supply that contains mostly starchy carbohydrates, a tiny amount of protein and small amounts of nutrients (vitamins and minerals). 

As you can see, each part of the whole offers something different, hence the nutritional emphasis on whole grains. More on that to come…

What good do grains do for me?

In short, grains give you fuel in the form of carbohydrates - calories to burn or store.

When properly prepared, whole grains may also play a nutritious supporting role in the diet (when combined with adequate protein, lots of fibrous and nutrient-dense produce, and the right healthy fats).

Whole (intact) grains that are soaked, cooked or sprouted can be a highly nutritious part of the human diet – offering naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and slowly-digesting starch that provides lasting energy. 

In the case of whole grains, these little morsels get eaten in their natural form along with the nutrients our bodies need to efficiently use them as energy. It’s tough to over-eat true whole grains because they’re very satisfying and are relatively tough to convert to body fat. 

If you’re looking for a way to increase plant nutrients and fiber in your diet, then eating more whole grains may be a step for you to consider.

But then why do some people say grains are bad for me?

The overwhelming majority of grain consumption in the modern world comes in the form of processed or refined grain products (think breakfast cereal, breads, etc.) that are very different from whole grains. 

The refining and milling of whole grains often strips away the nutritious bran and germ, leaving the starchy endosperm as the major component of whatever food it’s being made into. Most milled grain flour is “enriched,” which means certain nutrients lost when the bran and germ are removed get added back to the flour. 

Without the fibrous bran and nutritious germ to slow the digestion of the starch, however, refined grains get rapidly absorbed when we eat them, which is shown to cause rather dramatic increases in blood glucose levels.

In other words, we end up eating most of our grains as nutrient-poor, calorie-rich energy bombs without the vitamins and minerals that help us utilize the calories contained within them. Milled grains – especially those stripped of the nutritious parts – can wreak havov on our energy levels, blood glucose and hunger control.

If your energy levels are not as stable as you’d like them to be, if you struggle to control hunger, or if you want to steer clear of heart disease and diabetes risk, then seriously restricting refined/milled grain products is a smart move for you. Opt instead for abundant servings of veggies, adequate protein and ample natural fats at your meals and snacks.

Are there any other factors to consider about grains? 

Yes, actually.

Grains are resilient little packages that plants use to perpetuate their existence, so they naturally contain a few components that make them resistant to harsh conditions (such as the acidic environment found in the digestive tracts of animals and humans). Lectins and phytic acid are two major components anti-grain enthusiasts pay particular attention to.

Lectins are a group of carbohydrate-binding proteins found throughout nature, especially in grains (and legumes) that can cause nutrient deficiencies and inflict damage on human cells if grains are not properly prepared for consumption (by soaking, cooking or sprouting the grains first). 

Lectins (and to a small extent phytic acid) can render many of the vitamins and minerals in grains inaccessible to the human digestive tract. In fact, consumption of large amounts of these compounds have been observed to play a role in digestive distress and even intestinal damage, such as IBS. 

The “anti-nutrient” effect of lectins may be particularly burdensome to those who have “leaky gut” or autoimmune conditions, too.(PDF)

Bottom line: if your gut function isn’t what you want it to be or if you’re managing an autoimmune condition, limiting grain consumption (in favor of other sources of starch) may be well worth trying. 

So, what’s the story behind the nutritional recommendations?

Few people know this, but the original, unbiased, science-driven drafts of the Dietary Guidelines were dramatically different than the low-fat, high-grain versions released to the public since the late 1970s. 

The proposed food recommendations called for a maximum of 2-3 servings of whole grains per day, and a serious restriction of refined grains, for fear that higher intakes of grain products would lead to widespread obesity and type 2 diabetes. What’s happened over the past 30 years…?

The actual guidelines today, however, emphasize 6-11 servings of grains per day (half of which should be whole). 

Grains provide us with pure fuel. Extra calories from grains can be easily stored as body fat. Most adults are not active enough to tolerate (burn, not store) the recommended intake of grains.

All this considered, grains probably shouldn’t be the foundation of our dietary intake. At most, grains should be considered a condiment for most people – whether it’s to stabilize energy levels, better control hunger, or improve digestive health. 

What role should grains play in my diet?

Going "grain free" doesn’t mean “no carb” or even “low carb.” There are plenty of other sources of starch and fiber if you restrict or eliminate grains from your lifestyle, and there aren’t any nutrients grains provide that can’t be obtained from other foods. 

If your goal is fat loss or weight loss, grains should play a minor, supporting role in your diet. They are best consumed only before or after strenuous, energy-depleting exercise sessions – when they can support performance or energy replenishment. 

A good rule of thumb for fat loss is to keep portions to ½ the size of your fist, unless it’s before/after hard training sessions.

If you’re trying to improve digestive function or manage a chronic condition, grain intake may best be kept minimal. A modified elimination diet, such as Life Time’s D.TOX food protocol is a great template to trial a low/no-grain diet. 

If you have no issues with gastrointestinal function or over-storage of fat, consider yourself lucky: you may be able to include grains in the context of a well balanced, Healthy Way of Eating plan without any ill effects. 

Do you have further questions about the best role of grains in your eating plan? Talk with one of our registered dietitians today. Thanks for reading.

In health, Paul Kriegler - Corporate Registered Dietitian

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.


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