Are Grains Really Necessary for a Healthy Diet?

We hear a lot about the value of whole grains.  Could a grain-free diet be a healthy option? Nutrition Diva explains.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS,
March 22, 2011
Episode #132

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This article is adapted from my new book, Nutrition Diva’s Secrets for a Healthy Diet: What to Eat, What to Avoid, and What to Stop Worrying About.  It’s available wherever you buy or download books. Click here to read another free excerpt.

Are Grains Really Necessary for a Healthy Diet?

One of the reasons that grains have become such a central part of the human diet is that they have a long shelf-life. Unlike meat, dairy, and fresh produce, grains pack a whole lot of food energy (also known as calories) into a small, lightweight package that can be stored indefinitely without refrigeration or other preservation.  If you’ve got some dirt and a water supply, your last handful of grain can be used to create the next season’s food supply. You can see why they caught on.

The more grain-based foods you eat, the more important the quality of those grains becomes.

What Are Whole Grain Foods?

Although grains are portable and non-perishable, they’re not really edible in their raw state.  You can boil, steam, or sprout whole grains and eat them that way. Or you can mill the grains into flour and use it to make bread, tortillas, or pasta.  Either way, it’s considered a whole-grain food if all of the parts of the grain are included—the nutrient-rich germ, the starchy endosperm, and the fibrous bran.  When the bran and germ have been removed, as in white flour, it’s said to be a refined grain. 

The Advantages of Whole-Grain Foods

Keeping the germ makes whole-grain foods somewhat higher in certain vitamins and minerals.  But the primary nutritional advantage of whole grains is that the fiber from the bran slows down the speed at which the starches in the endosperm are converted into blood sugar.   Said another way, whole-grain foods have a lower “glycemic load” and when you’re talking about glycemic load, lower is generally better. 

Foods with a high glycemic load tend to make your blood sugar and insulin spike, which increases your risk of diabetes and heart disease and can potentially lead to weight gain, as well.  In fact, diets high in refined grains (which have a high glycemic load) have been linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity.  Choosing whole grains instead of refined grains reduces these risks.


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