The Truth About Whole Grains

Why you shouldn’t go whole hog on whole grains

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #155

September is Whole Grains Month, a month-long celebration of the virtues of whole grain foods.  This annual event is brought to you by the Whole Grains Council, a non-profit organization “working to increase consumption of whole grains for better health.”  The fact that members of the Whole Grain Council (primarily, companies that sell whole grain products) also benefit when you eat more whole grains is, of course, purely coincidental.

Do Whole Grains Make Us Healthier?

Of course, we hear a lot about the benefits of whole grains all year long—and not just from the people who sell them to us.  Getting people to eat more whole grains is also a major pillar of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  We’re told that people who eat more whole grains are healthier—they have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, and many other diseases. But this isn’t quite true. 

People who eat whole grain products—such as whole wheat bread—instead of refined grain products—such as white bread—do appear to be healthier.  But most of the benefit comes from the fact that they have reduced their consumption of refined grains.  When people simply eat more whole grains without eating less refined grains, they don’t get the same benefits.

The Whole Truth About Whole Grains

Choosing a whole grain option does not give you license to have a larger helping.  It’s important to watch portion size with all grain-based foods—even whole grain foods.

The fact is that most people do not need more grain-based foods in their diets. And while whole grains are definitely a better choice than refined grains, don’t let that “health halo” blind you to the following realities:

1. Whole grain foods are not that much lower in calories.   
Many people assume that whole grain foods are significantly lower in calories than refined grains, but this is not the case.  A slice of 100% whole wheat bread has approximately the same number of calories as a piece of white bread, for example.  A cup of brown rice actually has a few more calories than a cup of white rice.  The differences between whole grain pasta and white pasta are also minimal. The good news is that, even though it might not be much lower in calories, the whole grain option may help you feel fuller for longer—primarily because of the extra fiber.

2. Whole grain products are only slightly easier on your blood sugar than refined grains. 
As a general rule, you want to avoid foods that cause a rapid rise and fall in your blood sugar levels.  That’s one big reason that I suggest you limit your intake of foods that contain a lot of sugar.  Starch, which is the main component of grains, can also cause a fairly rapid rise in blood sugar. And while whole grains cause a smaller rise than refined grains, the difference is not as great as you might imagine.

3. Whole-grain foods are not nutrient dense. 
We also hear a lot about how nutritious whole grain foods are.  Although they are higher in some nutrients than their refined counterparts, the amount of vitamins, minerals, and fiber they provide is still fairly modest. 


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.