More carbs, fewer carbs, good carbs, bad carbs…the carb debate wages on. You may be wondering if there will ever be a consensus on how carbohydrates fit into a healthy diet. Despite the array of seemingly conflicting advice, nutrition experts tend to agree on this: there are “good” carbohydrates out there. And Americans would be healthier if they ate more of them.
Although most nutrition experts hesitate to classify foods as “good” or “bad,” many high carbohydrate foods are worthy of at least a “good” label. Fruit, nonfat milk and yogurt, legumes and whole grains are great examples of these incredibly healthy carbs.
Whole grains have been getting a lot of attention in recent years, as research links a diet rich in these foods to a decreased risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, and obesity. Whole grains provide the body with complex carbohydrates for energy, and their high fiber content promotes intestinal health. Whole grain foods can also help lower cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.
What are Whole Grains, and What’s So Special About Them?
The whole grain is the entire edible part of any grain—the outer shell (bran), the endosperm that contains complex carbohydrates and protein, and the germ. Processing often removes most or all of the bran and germ, along with much of the fiber, B-vitamins, vitamin E, trace minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. The enrichment process adds back the B-vitamins and iron, but some of the nutrients and most of the disease-fighting phytochemicals are lost forever.
In the past, many of the assumed benefits of whole grains were linked to their higher fiber content. Recent research suggests the whole grain package, not just the fiber, provides the benefits. The bran, germ and endosperm work together in powerful ways to protect the body. In the case of whole grains, the “whole” is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Examples of Whole Grains
Common whole grains include brown rice, oatmeal, corn, popcorn, and whole grain dry cereals. 100% whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat English muffins, whole-wheat tortillas, and whole-wheat pasta are examples of the familiar wheat choices. Less common whole grains include:
- Cornmeal (whole grain cornmeal is less common than refined cornmeal)
- Hulled barley
- Kamut (ancient Egyptian wheat)
- Teff (common Ethiopian grain)
- Whole rye
- Whole-wheat berries (the whole wheat kernel) or bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Whole-wheat couscous.
If you haven’t eaten spelt or bulgur before, or don’t even know how to pronounce quinoa (it’s keen-wa), you may be tempted to opt for the more familiar whole grains. But if you try these less common grains, you will find some tasty and more nutritious alternatives to rice and pasta. Try them in grain salads or pilaf, or add to stews, stuffing, soups, or chili. Some taste great as a cooked cereal. Be adventurous!
One drawback of cooking whole grains is that most take time to prepare. Brown rice takes 40 to 45 minutes to cook while wheat, rye, or spelt berries need 45 to 90 minutes. If time is an issue, cook large batches and freeze them. Or try whole grains with faster cooking times such as whole-wheat couscous, teff berries, quinoa, and cracked wheat.
How to Identify Whole Grains
Some whole grains are easy to spot, like brown rice or oatmeal. But how do you make sure your bread, cereal, or crackers are whole grain? An easy tip is to look for the word “whole” in the first ingredient. Whole-wheat flour, whole cornmeal, whole rye, whole grain oats are examples. Don’t be misled by products called multigrain, 7-grain, 100% wheat, wheat, organic, or bran—these label terms don’t guarantee a whole grain food is inside.
How Much is Enough?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 3 servings of whole grains daily. In other words, half of the minimum 6 daily servings of breads, grains and cereals should come from whole grains. One serving can be:
- 1 slice whole wheat bread or ½ whole wheat English muffin or pita bread
- ½ cup cooked brown rice, whole wheat pasta, corn, bulgur, or barley
- ½ cup cooked oatmeal or 1 ounce whole grain cereal
- 3-4 small whole grain crackers
- 1 small whole grain tortilla or muffin
Those who already eat 3 servings of whole grains daily are among the small minority of Americans who reach this goal. Most Americans get less than 1 serving of whole grains daily (and plenty of processed, low fiber grains). Many experts feel this lack of whole grains and plentiful consumption of refined grains is a significant shortcoming in the average American diet, and a diet pattern that is related to obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
It’s easy to get 3 daily servings of whole grains. Eat a small bowl of oatmeal for breakfast (1 serving) and a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread for lunch (2 servings) and you’ve done it! After changing a few of your diet staples, start experimenting. Add barley to your soup instead of white rice or pasta. Eat whole grain crackers with your salad. Make corn muffins with whole grain cornmeal. The possibilities are endless!
If your diet is currently low in whole grains or fiber in general, it’s best to gradually increase fiber intake. This will give your body a chance to adjust (and you will experience less gas, bloating and diarrhea). Also drink plenty of fluids, or the fiber from whole grains might leave you constipated.
Whole grains are tasty, satisfying and nutritious. And there’s plenty of research to support their rightful place on America’s plate. So the next time you are reading the latest opinion on the carb debate, while munching on your whole grain muffin, let go of the guilt. Rest assured, whole grains are good for you!