Are Whole Grains Actually Healthy? Facts, Myths, and Benefits Explored

Whole grains are a source of carbohydrates, providing a good amount of fiber as well as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. However, myths and false facts about grains can be confusing and misleading. Read more to learn facts, myths, and benefits of whole grains.

A quick look at nutritional values

Whole grains contain fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, zinc, copper, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. Some popular options include whole-grain wheat flour, brown rice, wild rice, oats, buckwheat, and whole-grain barley, among others.

Let's quickly go through the nutritional values of these whole-grain favorites.

Energy per 100 gCarbohydrates ProteinTotal fatFiber
Whole-grain wheat flour340 kcal61.3 g13.2 g2.5 g10.7 g
Brown rice357 kcal73.5 g8.3 g2.6 g3 g
Wild rice357 kcal68.7 g14.7 g1.1 g6.2 g
Oats389 kcal55.7 g16.9 g6.9 g10.6 g
Buckwheat335 kcal65.3 g11.1 g2 g5.8 g
Whole-grain barley334 kcal60.8 g10.6 g2.1 g14.8 g

Whole grains vs. refined grains: what's healthier?

Whole grains are healthier than refined grains because they contain fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.

Whole grains consist of bran, germ, and endosperm. Bran is the outer layer rich in fiber, micronutrients, and antioxidants. Germ is rich in fats and micronutrients, while endosperm contains carbohydrates.

Refined grains lack bran and germ, losing fiber, healthy fats, micronutrients, and phytochemicals. Authoritative sources, including U.S. dietary guidelines, recommend incorporating around 70–90 grams of whole grains into your daily diet. However, research shows that global consumption of whole grains is about 38 grams per day, and only 23 of 187 countries exceed 50 grams of daily whole grain intake.

Can I lose weight by eating only whole grains?

Whole grains are part of a healthy and balanced diet. They can help weight loss by providing a low glycemic index energy source. The glycemic index is a score used to assess how quickly carbohydrate-containing foods increase blood glucose levels.

Foods with high glycemic index are absorbed quickly and cause spikes in blood glucose, which is not advantageous for weight loss. Whole grains, with low glycemic index, are a good energy source with a slower increase in blood glucose levels.

An analysis of 5 to 10 years long prospective cohort studies (long-term studies in which individuals are followed over a long period) showed an inverse correlation between whole grains intake and weight change, meaning an increase in whole grains was associated with a decreased body weight. However, the same study also analyzed nine randomized controlled trials, including almost 100 subjects, that showed no significant effects of whole grains intake on body weight.

Following a personalized weight loss program consisting of healthy foods, which include whole grains, lean protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, can help with weight loss and maintaining healthy body weight.

Are whole grains suitable for gluten intolerance?

Gluten is found in wheat, wheat-derived products, rye, and barley. Therefore, any products containing or contaminated with gluten-containing grains are unsuitable for people following a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free whole grains include but are not limited to:

  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Sorghum
  • Teff

How do whole grains impact digestive health?

Whole grains are rich in dietary fiber. When fiber comes to the colon, intestinal microbiota ferments it, producing short-chain fatty acids associated with improved digestive health.

Fiber is also divided into soluble and insoluble fiber. Whole grains contain different compositions of these two fibers. Soluble fiber is associated with lower cholesterol and blood glucose levels. Insoluble fiber can improve bowel motility.

Common myths about whole grains

Some believe whole grains spike blood glucose levels. On the contrary, eating whole grains with low glycemic index can help improve blood glucose levels. A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials showed that whole grains significantly reduced fasting blood glucose, insulin levels, and HbA1C.

Grains are also claimed to be unhealthy by some people. However, there is a difference between whole grains and refined grains. Refined grains have a lower nutritional value yet a higher glycemic index than whole grains. Refined carbohydrates can be consumed within a diet. Still, whole grains are recommended to be the majority of a grain's intake.

Gluten is regarded as harmful for all people. It's recommended that people with gluten-related diseases should avoid it, but healthy people don't need to. Besides, not all grains contain gluten. Many whole grains, such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and rice, do not.

Some believe whole grains cause bloating. In truth, whole grains are high in fiber, which can improve digestion by increasing fecal volume, bowel motility, and intestinal microbiota. If you have frequent digestive problems after eating gluten-containing grains, consult your doctor for a medical check.

How to eat more whole grains daily?

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends choosing whole grain foods that contain more than 50% of whole grains.

You can eat more grains daily by:

  • Choosing whole-grain alternatives is similar to replacing refined grains. For example, if you eat white bread, replace it with whole-grain bread.
  • Adding whole grains at least one meal in a day. You can consume porridge made with oats, cook brown rice as a side dish, whole-grain pasta as a quick meal, or add grains to salad.
  • Reading product labels. Inconsistencies in food labeling can be confusing. Look for products that include whole grains as the first ingredient. You can also look at the carbohydrate–fiber ratio of the product, which is advised to be less than 10:1 and 10:2. Keep in mind that not all whole-grain products are healthy. Some whole-grain products can be high in calories and sugar. Therefore, checking labels before buying products is a necessity.

In conclusion, whole grains are energy sources high in fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals such as zinc, copper, and magnesium, and antioxidants. They can improve health by supporting the maintenance of a healthy weight and improving blood glucose, cholesterol levels, and digestive health.

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