Grains: Are They Good For You, or Bad?
We investigate whether grains are good or bad for your long term health.
Cereal grains are the world’s single biggest source of food energy. The three most commonly consumed types are wheat, rice and corn. Despite widespread consumption, the health effects of grains are quite controversial. Some think they are an essential component of a healthy diet, while others think they cause harm. In the US, the health authorities recommend that women eat 5-6 servings of grains per day, and men eat 6-8.
However, some health experts believe that we should be avoiding grains as much as possible. With the rising popularity of the paleo diet which eliminates grains, people all over the world are now avoiding grains because they believe they are unhealthy. As is so often the case in nutrition, there are good arguments on both sides.
This newsletter takes a detailed look at grains and their health effects, examining both the good stuff, and the bad.
What Are Grains?
Cereal grains (or simply grains) are small, hard and edible dry seeds that grow on grass-like plants called cereals. They are a staple food in most countries, and provide more food energy worldwide than any other food group, by far. They are eaten by humans, and also used to feed and fatten up livestock. Then grains can be processed into various different food products.
Today, the most commonly produced and consumed grains are corn (or maize), rice, and wheat. Other grains that are consumed in smaller amounts include barley, oats, sorghum, millet, rye and several others. Then there are also foods called pseudo cereals, which are technically not grains, but are prepared and consumed like grains. These include quinoa and buckwheat.
Foods made from grains include breads, pasta, breakfast cereals, muesli, oatmeal, tortillas, as well as junk foods like pastries and cookies. Grain-based products are also used to make ingredients that are added to all sorts of processed foods.
For example, high fructose corn syrup, a major sweetener in the US diet, is made from corn.
Whole Grains vs Refined Grains
Just like most other foods, not all grains are created equal. It is important to make a distinction between whole and refined grains.
A whole grain consists of 3 main parts:
- Bran: The hard outer layer of the grain. It contains fibre, minerals and antioxidants.
- Germ: The nutrient-rich core that contains carbs, fats, proteins, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and various phytonutrients. The germ is the embryo of the plant, the part that gives rise to a new plant.
- Endosperm: The biggest part of the grain, contains mostly carbs (in the form of starch) and protein.
A refined grain has had the bran and germ removed, leaving just the endosperm. Some grains (like oats) are usually eaten whole, whereas others are generally eaten refined. Many grains are mostly consumed after they have been pulverised into very fine flour and processed into a different form. This includes wheat.
Important: Keep in mind that the whole grain label on food packaging can be highly misleading. These grains have often been pulverised into very fine flour and should have similar metabolic effects as their refined counterparts.
Bottom Line: A whole grain contains the bran and germ of the grain, which provide fibre and all sorts of important nutrients. Refined grains have had these nutritious parts removed, leaving only the high-carb endosperm.
Some Whole Grains Are Highly Nutritious
Whereas refined grains are nutrient poor (empty calories), this is not true of whole grains. Whole grains tend to be high in many nutrients, including fibre, B vitamins, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, manganese and selenium. This also depends on the type of grain. Some grains (like oats and whole wheat) are loaded with nutrients, whereas others (like rice and corn) are not very nutritious, even in their whole form. Keep in mind that refined grains are often enriched with nutrients like iron, folate and B vitamins, to replace some of the nutrients that were lost during processing.
Refined Grains Are Extremely Unhealthy
Refined grains are like whole grains, except all of the good stuff has been removed. Nothing is left except the high-carb, high-calorie endosperm with lots of starch and small amounts of protein. The fibre and nutrients have been stripped out, and refined grains therefore classify as “empty” calories. Because the carbs have been separated from the fibre, and perhaps even ground into flour, they are now easily accessible to the body’s digestive enzymes. For this reason, they get broken down fast, and can lead to rapid spikes in blood sugar levels when consumed. When we eat foods with refined carbohydrates, our blood sugars go up rapidly, and then drop again soon after. When the blood sugar levels drop, we become hungry and get cravings.
Numerous studies show that eating these types of foods leads to overeating, and may therefore cause weight gain and obesity. Refined grains have also been linked to numerous metabolic diseases. They can drive insulin resistance and are linked to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. From a nutrition standpoint, there is nothing positive about refined grains. They are low in nutrients, fattening, and harmful, and most people are eating way too much of them. Unfortunately, the majority of people’s grain intake comes from the refined variety. Very few people in Western countries eat significant amounts of whole grains.
Bottom line: Refined grains are high in carbs that get digested and absorbed very quickly, leading to rapid spikes in blood sugar and subsequent hunger and cravings. They are linked to obesity and many metabolic diseases.
Take Home Message
As with most things in nutrition, all of this depends entirely on the individual. If you like grains and feel good eating them, then there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to avoid them as long as you’re eating mostly whole grains. On the other hand, if you don’t like grains or if they make you feel bad, then there is no harm in avoiding them either.
Grains are not essential, and there is no nutrient in there that you can’t get from other foods. At the end of the day, grains are good for some, but not others.
If you like grains, eat them. If you don’t like them, or they make you feel bad, then avoid them. It’s as simple as that.