Whole Grains Have to be Whole: Not “Made From Whole”

May 05, 2006

Whole Grains Have to be Whole: Not “Made From Whole” 

 Competency # 12 FIBER                         Reference:  Nutrition Action Newsletter May 2006 

Everything is now labeled, “Made from Whole Grains.”  However, when I look closely I can’t see the chunks of grain.  What’s going on?  What is it about whole grains that is so important?  Here is the straight inside story. First of all, for those of us who are happy with a straight admonition to just do it, the new FDA food guidelines that came out last year say that we ought to eat half of our carbohydrate intake in the form of whole grains.  

As careful and obsessive as I am, I rarely find a food that qualifies unless I make it myself.  We live in a sea of advertising about food that is made from whole grain.  How do I get 2-3 servings a day of whole grains? First, let’s talk about how you can avoid and detect the deception.  Then, we will review the studies that give you the evidence. 

 Our bodies evolved eating very coarse grains, when they were available.  We have big heavy molars to chew on the coarse whole grain.  The grains themselves evolved with a tough outer coating to avoid being chewed.  We call that fiber.  They wanted to survive the journey through our guts so that they could sprout and grow.  The net effect is that our metabolism is used to slowly digesting very coarse grains.  The protective fiber on the outside of the grain dramatically slows digestion.  Your blood sugar responds very slowly as your gut gradually processes the grain product with its protective coat.

 It’s easy to tell if you are really getting WHOLE grains.  You have to be able to see the chunks.  The chunks should have a brownish coating: that’s the fiber.  The inside is white.  That’s the carbohydrate (sugar).  And yeast doesn’t work on chunks, so your whole-grain product really can’t be too closely related to bread.  Whole grains have to be whole to get the full benefit.  

Most whole-grain bread is 95% wheat flour with a few pieces sprinkled on top. Then, along comes modern milling.  We take the whole grain and turn it into powder.  That powder expands the surface area that enzymes can access to digest and break down the long chains of glucose by at least 100 fold.  We call that powder flour.  We bake it into bread.  In our stomachs, that bread is rapidly digested, turns into sugar in our blood, and rapid rises in sugar result in insulin releases.  

Our food processing companies want to get credit for using a whole grain, which they do, so they emphasize the fact that you are getting the fiber and the vitamins from the whole grain product.  That’s true.  What they fail to mention is that once it has been ground into powder, the speed with which it is digested is dramatically changed, and it is that speed of digestion and processing that we are finding appears to make some difference.  Flour products have high glycemic indexes: i.e. your sugar goes up fast. Looking only at the speed of digestion and its current method of measurement, we haven’t been able to prove that low glycemic foods necessarily result in better health outcomes.  

But the following associations with large longitudinal studies and dietary habits suggest strongly that eating the whole grain is markedly better for you. Iowa Women’s Health Study: 34,000 women: those who eat one serving of whole-grain a day have a 30-36 % lower risk of heart disease. Nurse’s Study: 75,000 nurses.  Those who ate three servings of whole grains a day had a 25 % lower risk of heart disease and a 36 % lower risk of stroke compared to those who ate none. Health Professional’s Study:  44,000 men: those eating 42 grams of whole grain a day (3 servings) had an 18% lower risk of heart attack. This news article is too short to give all the details.  

But if you want to read more, the current issue of Nutrition Action has an excellent article that also talks about the antioxidants, the insulin, diabetes, and constipation: all of which are also improved. 

www. What Will Work for Me:  I make my whole-grain cereal each day.  And I try to find whole-grain foods at the grocery.  Pick and Save had none last week.  Sendiks and Outpost both had 3 and 4 offerings.  Visit those stores.  Learn new recipes.  It’s all for our hearts and our metabolism.

This column is written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. (262-784-5300)