Learn about the importance of incorporating the best whole grains into your diet.
Let’s face it: a discussion about whole grains is not going to steer you away from your latest Netflix binge or your younger sister’s latest dating crisis-du-jour. But like actor Jack Nicholson infamously said in the movie A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” The same goes for this much misunderstood cornerstone of a well-balanced food pyramid.
Whole grains should be a staple of your diet - at least half the grains that you eat should be whole. Determining which products are actually whole grains can be challenging, however; be aware of misleading food branding and marketing messages and use the nutritional labels to determine if they are high in fiber. Key takeaways from this post:
- Integrating whole grains into your diet aids in heart health
- Pay attention to labels - watch out for added sugars
- Whole grains contain fiber, B vitamins, and minerals
The Whole Story Behind Whole Grains
Whole grains are an excellent staple to include in your everyday diet and are a source of many nutrients, including dietary fiber, several B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate) and minerals (iron, magnesium and selenium). Let’s take a look first at those vitamins and minerals and their individual contributions to your overall health. Read this and the next biochemist you meet with be amazed at how in touch you are with your body and its needs.
Thiamine (B1) - Thiamine is an essential nutrient that all tissues of the body need to function properly. Interestingly enough, thiamine was the first B vitamin that scientists discovered, hence, why its name carries the number 1. Like the other B vitamins, thiamine is water-soluble (it is flushed out) and aids in helping the body convert food into energy.
Riboflavin (B2) - Riboflavin has several important functions including keeping the skin, eyes and the nervous system healthy and aiding in the production of steroids and red blood cells. Keeps you bright eyed and bushy tailed!
Niacin (B3) - Niacin is a major component of NADand NADP, two coenzymes that are involved in cellular metabolism. It also plays a role in cell signaling and making and repairing DNA, in addition to acting as an antioxidant.
Folate (B9) – Also known as folic acid, folate is important for the brain, and for maintaining mental health, i.e., your sanity. It’s used to manufacture our DNA and RNA, so it is needed for creating new cells – because of this it is very important for pregnant women, infants, adolescents, and anyone who needs to grow new tissue (such as after an injury or surgery). Folate also works with B12 to make red blood cells, and plays a role in maintaining the health of the cardiovascular system, nervous system, and digestive system.
Iron - Iron is a mineral responsible for carrying oxygen in your red blood cells and transmitting nerve impulses. Not having enough iron in your body is known as anemia. Most people get enough iron in their diets. Some of the reasons a person may need additional iron are because they take certain medications, exercise frequently, or are a menstruating or pregnant woman.
Magnesium - It is essential for over 300 different chemical reactions in the body, including maintaining your energy level, helping you relax, and sustaining the health of your heart and blood vessels. Magnesium deficiency is unfortunately probably the most common nutritional deficiency in the developed world – don’t fall victim to it!
Selenium - Selenium increases immunity, plays a key role antioxidant activity that defends against free radical damage and inflammation, and is important for maintaining metabolism health. According to recent studies, consuming plenty of naturally occurring selenium has positive antiviral effects, is essential for successful male and female fertility and reproduction, and also reduces the risk of cancer, autoimmune and thyroid diseases.
According to Harvard Health, when choosing bread, cereals, crackers, pasta, etc. you should make at least half of your grains whole.
However, throughout the world, labeling laws are very flexible, so you may not be purchasing whole grains when you think you are. Labels can be misleading, so here are a few tips for how to pick the best whole grain products:
- Watch for food branding: foods labeled with the words “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven grain” or “bran” are usually not whole grain products.
- Color is not an indication of a whole grain. Bread can be brown because of molasses, caramel or other added ingredients. Choose foods with fewer added sugars to eliminate extra calories.
- Use the Nutrition Facts label and choose whole grain products with a higher Percent Daily Value (%V) of fiber. Many, but not all, whole grain products are excellent sources of fiber.
Check the labels!
Seek out the following whole grains or in processed foods look for these ingredients on the label:
- 100% whole wheat/grain
- Whole-grain corn
Buckwheat (check out this recipe)
- Whole Oats
- Whole Rye
- Brown Rice
- Whole-grain Barley
- Wild Rice
Integrating whole grains into your daily diet can greatly enhance your heart health. According to the American Heart Association, 1 in 4 deaths is caused by heart disease. However, heart disease can be prevented by making healthy choices and managing your health conditions. Easy (free!) suggestions include:
- Make physical activity a part of your daily routine. Even if you are not a warrior athlete, things such as walking, dancing, exercise classes, or gardening during the summer months (even housecleaning) all help keep the heart healthy.
- Participate in other activities such as singing, crafts, community programs or hobbies geared toward fun, laughter and keeping your heart light.
- Eat foods lower in salt and fat and high in fiber and whole grains!
A Note About Allergies
Fortunately, the Food Allergy and Anaphylactic Network states that most grain and wheat allergies pop up in childhood and are outgrown by adulthood. However, a wheat allergy can occur at any age and should be evaluated and diagnosed by a doctor. Wheat allergies cannot be diagnosed based exclusively on symptoms because other conditions, like celiac disease and gluten intolerance, may cause comparable symptoms. If you’re diagnosed with a wheat allergy, you are more prone to having an allergy to another grain.
Signs and symptoms, which can include but are not limited to hives, sneezing or stomach complications, commonly develop within a few minutes after consuming the grain. It is best to discuss alternatives to whole grains with your doctor and he or she can recommend nutritional supplements if necessary.
Most people want to feel good and realize that eating healthy is an essential part of the equation. Paying attention to labels and making sure that you are getting real whole grains or the comparable nutritional value from other sources is a definite step in the right direction.