A study at Tufts University, which was recently published by JNCI Cancer Spectrum, identifies seven “suboptimal” dietary factors that are associated with preventable cancer in the United States. These dietary factors include: low intake of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy, and high intake of processed meats, red meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Of these factors, low intake of whole grains contributed to the most cancer cases. The study offers some suggestions why Americans are not eating enough whole grains, including unfamiliarity with the health benefits of whole grains and inability to identify whole grain foods. So, let’s take an introductory look at what makes whole grains good for you and how to find them in your food.
What Makes Whole Grains Healthy?
Whole grains are much healthier than their processed counterparts, refined grains, because they have retained all the nutritious components that they have naturally.
As Harvard’s The Nutrition Source explains, whole grains grow with three parts called the germ, the endosperm, and the bran. The germ is the inmost part of the grain and contains healthy fats, B vitamins, and antioxidants. The endosperm surrounds the germ and is a source of carbohydrates and proteins. The bran encapsulates both the germ and endosperm and is especially known for the fiber it provides.
Different food processing techniques turn whole grains into refined grains as a way of modifying texture, taste, or appearance of grain products. However, when whole grains become refined grains, much of the bran and germ are stripped away, taking the health benefits with them and leaving behind a much less nutritious food. So, whereas whole wheat flour and brown rice retain the natural healthful qualities of whole grains, white flour and white rice have been refined and therefore do not have those same qualities.
Eating Whole Grains!
How many whole grains can you name? The “whole wheat” grain may be obvious because of its frequent appearance in breads, but here are some other whole grains: barley, buckwheat, bulgur, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, brown rice (or black or purple or red rice!), rye, and spelt. The Whole Grains Council lists even more.
How can you be sure what you’re eating has whole grains instead of refined grains? For starters, be a careful consumer, and read nutrition labels for the foods you purchase. Don’t be fooled by words like “multi-grain,” “stoneground,” or “organic”—these terms do not necessarily mean that the product has whole grains; rather, it could have refined grains or a mixture of both whole and refined grains. Instead, whole grains will often be indicated by—you guessed it—the word whole, e.g., “stoneground whole.” Also, knowing about how individual grains are sold will help you when shopping for whole grains. For example, oats almost always come in whole-grain form, regardless of whether they are “old-fashioned oats” or “steel-cut oats.”
Another way you can be sure to incorporate whole grains into your diet is to make whole grain recipes yourself!
How much whole grain food should you eat every day? Check out ChooseMyPlate.gov’s grains tables for guidelines on serving sizes and food portion equivalents.