How Healthy are Whole Grains Really?

How healthy are whole grains really?

The message is everywhere: “Eat more whole grains.” The supermarket is full of products that proudly claim to contain whole grains. Even some fast food restaurants include a whole grain option in their menus. What is the reason behind all of this and is it really true what they all say?

In this post we will look at what a whole grain is, what the real benefits are and how eating more “whole grains” could actually be unhealthy.

What is the difference between “whole” and “white”?

What is a grain?

What is called a “grain” is actually the dry fruit/seeds of grasses. The grain consists of three different parts: the germ, which is the part that will sprout and become the actual plant; the endosperm, which contains the starch to support the sprout when growing; and the bran, which is the protective layer that encases the germ and endosperm.

What is the difference between whole and white?

Technically, a whole grain consists of all three parts mentioned above. Any food that we think of as white — such as white rice, regular flour and pasta — contains only the starchy endosperm. The bran and the germ were removed.

what is a whole grain

What is in the bran of a whole grain?

The bran contains 60% of all the minerals in a grain, such as phosphorus, potassium, manganese, copper and iron. The bran is also a great source of insoluble fiber, which is vital to good health.

What is in the germ of a whole grain?

The germ is a concentrated source of tocopherols (Vitamin E family), folate, thiamin, phosphorus, zinc and magnesium. It also contains essential fatty acids, fatty alcohols and fiber.

Did you know…?

Most people think of fruits and vegetables when they hear the word antioxidants. However, whole grains also contain a lot of antioxidants, some of which are not found in fruits and vegetables.

What are the benefits of eating whole grains?

Whole grains contain more micronutrients

Since most of the nutrients of a grain are contained in the germ and bran, which are removed in non-whole grain foods, whole grains contain more micronutrients (minerals/vitamins/phytonutrients). Often times some of the nutrients that are first removed are added back in later. This is called an “enriched” food. The nutrients niacin, folate, thiamin, riboflavin and iron are the ones most commonly added, but phytonutrients (e.g. lignans) are lost.

Whole grains contain more macronutrients

When the bran and germ are removed, we lose not only valuable micronutrients but also macronutrients such as fiber and protein. One cup of whole wheat flour contains 15g of fiber and 16g of protein, while one cup of industrial white flour can have as little as 1g of fiber and 2g of protein. This means some white flour consists almost entirely of carbohydrates.

Shopping Tip

Manufacturers are doing all kinds of things in order to trick people into thinking a product is healthier than it is. In this case they use phrases such as “100% wheat”, “made with whole grains” to make a product seem “whole grain”. Sometimes they even add coloring to make food a darker brown. The only way to be sure is to read the label: Make sure the first ingredient has the word “whole” in it.

Why eating your whole grains is not the whole story

How people eat more whole grains

Bread, cereal, pasta, crackers and baked goods are staples in the American diet. So what is most likely going to happen when the message is simply: “Eat more whole grains!” Exactly, they eat more whole grain bread, cereal, pasta, crackers and baked goods…

These kinds of whole grains are not much better

In most cases these foods are really not much better than their white counterparts, in some ways they are even worse. The important point here is that most of these foods are highly processed, whole grain or not. This means they are most likely high in sugar and full of unhealthy fats and additives. Also, during processing many of the micronutrients are simply lost. Due to processing and storage, the fats in the whole grains often become rancid, and the bad taste they develop needs to be covered up with some flavor enhancers, sugar, salt and fat.

People feel whole grains are safer

Here is another common problem with whole grain products. People think that because something is whole grain it is healthier and they tend to eat more of it than they would if it were “white”. When the whole grain product they chose is a highly processed food, this is clearly not good. And even if the whole grain product is unprocessed, too many carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels in unfavorable manners and increase the risk for insulin resistance, diabetes II and ultimately heart disease.

Why whole grain flour is not really a whole grain

The problem with whole grain flour is that it is always processed. Processing does not just refer to cooking or adding things, but grinding is also a form of processing food. In this case, the surface area of the grains is increased and the hard bran layer is broken up, making it easier to digest. Because of this, carbohydrates from whole grain flour (any flour, for that matter) are much more readily absorbed in the intestine and increase blood glucose levels relatively quickly, again increasing the risk for insulin resistance, diabetes II and ultimately heart disease.

A true whole grain is a grain that… well… is still whole!

Health Tip

If you suffer from tiredness, mood swings or cravings for carbohydrates, it is possible that your blood sugar is not where it should be. Buy yourself a glucose monitor and find out what is really going on with your blood sugar levels.

What the real whole grain message should be

Switch processed whole grains with unprocessed whole grains

Processed foods are bad for many reasons and whole grain products are no exception. And most processed whole grain products contain flour, which as stated above should not even be considered a whole grain.

Eat less grains in general

There is absolutely no reason to include grains in every singe meal. There are many people that simply eat way too many grains, whole wheat or not. Too many carbohydrates at one time, and your blood sugar and overall health will likely suffer. Also, if dinner consists of a big bowl of pasta, there is little room for other nutritional foods such as vegetables. A balance is the key to many things, diet being no exception. And the balance might not lie where you think.

Everybody is different. Know yourself!

It is difficult to make recommendations about how much, how often and what kind of whole grains people should eat. The truth is that everybody is different. Some people have better blood sugar control than others (genetics/lifestyle) and can enjoy more whole grains without adverse affects. There are also other biochemical differences that make some people react adversely to certain grains (food in general). It is important that you monitor your own health and learn what is best for your body.

Not just Gluten Allergies

A lot of people are sensitive to wheat and gluten in general. While the symptoms are not as severe as with people that suffer from celiac disease, they can include among others acne, tiredness and IBS. The best way to find out if you are sensitive to it, is to cut it out completely for a couple of weeks and see if any symptoms improve.

To sum things up

Whole grains can definitely have a place in a healthy diet. While whole grains are certainly healthier than their white counterparts, try to eat them in their least processed form and as part of a balanced meal in controlled portions.

– Christina

50 comments

  1. Mark says:

    Are the sprouted breads and pastries better than the ones made with just flour? And how serious is rancid germ found in old and/or unrefrigerated whole flours?

    • In terms of GI, sprouted breads seem to be better in general. The reason is that often times the grains are not as finely ground and during sprouting the amount of starch decreases. But of course it depends on the specific brand, the way they process it and what else they put in there. The best way to know is to simply test it yourself. Eat the same amount of sprouted and then non-sprouted grains and track your blood sugar. I have heard from people with diabetes that sprouted grains are kinder to their blood sugar.

      If something is rancid, throw it out. Not only does it taste bad, but oxidized oils are harmful to your health. They raise the risk of atherosclerosis and blood clots. That is why it is best to store nuts, oils, flours etc in the refrigerator and to buy them in small amounts and to use them relatively quickly.

  2. Oh my gosh – SO glad you stopped by my blog so I could find yours. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE the knowledge you are spreading – and it’s a good change of pace from my usual foodblog rss feed, lol. I Love learning more about this kind of stuff, so keep at it! :)

    • Thank you so much! I am so glad you like it.

      There will definitely be more, I am already working on about 50 posts, ok most of them just have a title so far… but still. Let me know if you have any specific questions or requests! I am always open.

      Thanks again for stopping by!

      – Christina

  3. Helena Mullett says:

    I can’t stand whole grain bread. Are bran muffins or cereal really bran? I suppose Laura’s yogurt shake breakfast is better for me than just about any cereal or bread/toast option. (but I should watch the sugar content) Like many people, my breakfast is a grab and go thing except when I scramble eggs. A hard boiled egg is probably a good quick choice.

    • Depends on what cereal/muffin you eat. The thing about processed foods is that their labels are often very deceiving. They can say “heart-healthy” as long as it contains some form of oat. Often they do not put a lot in there and process the crap out of it, so that it only vaguely resembles it’s original food. And don’t forget about all the added stuff.

      You are right, a smoothie is sometimes a better option. Even though it seems counterintuitive (fruit = simple sugar, whole grain bread/cereal = starch), certain fruits are much kinder to our blood sugar levels than flours. Try a mixed berry smoothie, made with frozen berries. Super speedy and you can take it with you.

      The egg is also a good idea, full of filling protein. Try a handful of raw nuts with it.

  4. BostonRunner says:

    Hey I just found your blog! I love it! This post was so informative! I loveee my bread and always have the question of white vs. whole grain, so this really helped out! Thanks!

    • Hi,

      Thank you! I am glad you liked it.

      I love your list of 101 things. I think I might be able to help you with 6, 17, 18, 50 and 98. And since you wrote me this comment you can cross off 56.

      Let me know if you have any questions!

      – Christina

  5. I am a HUGE advocate for going gluten-free! I do not have Celiac Disease but once I cut out gluten My skin cleared up, my digestion improved, and my bowel movements have been more regular and “normal” in appearance. (sorry was that TMI??) I also noticed my nails and teeth were stronger and the ridges that were normally on them went away. I also got a lot of cancker sores in my mouth and since going GF they have gone away too! It was the best decision I have ever made in terms of a healthy lifestyle!

    • Thank you so much for sharing this! And no, it is never TMI! ☺ These things are important too… haha

      I am actually gluten-free as well at the moment. Ever since I stopped taking the pill (years ago) my skin has been a mess (compared to “Swiss skin” before as people called it) and my GI health…well, we do not even want to go there. I have been planing on doing this for a long time, since I was always very aware of the possibility.

      Last week was the perfect time to go gluten-free, since my husband (bread/pasta lover) decided to quit these foods due to some signs of insulin resistance. These events inspired me to write this post and look critically at things that are thought of as healthy. It is always good to know that “healthy eating” is not simply a universal concept, but something that has to be tailored to each individual.

      There are so many other delicious gluten-free whole grains!

      Thank you again for your insights. I will let you know how I feel in a couple of weeks. ☺

      – Christina

      PS: Did you also notice a difference in dark under-eye circles? That is something I struggle with and I hope it will clear as well. There are times when my eyes look fine, but most of the time they do not. And sleep has never been an issue.

  6. Thanks so much for the nice comment on my blog! You made my day!

    This is a very informative post – I have actually been wondering about this a lot for when I am trying to buy frozen pizza with whole wheat crust – they are definitely tricky with their packaging!

    • You are SO welcome!

      Thank you for stopping by. It feels so much better when there are some people around. ☺

      Oh, I hate all the things manufacturers do in order to get us to buy their products. All that talk about natural, organic etc. How can these people sleep at night?

      – Christina

  7. Biz says:

    Thanks for stopping by my blog and for the diabetes info – it’s appreciated!

  8. Hi there!
    Thanks so much for commenting on my blog. I love this post–I love whole grains! I think so many people know/believe that whole grains are healthy, but aren’t exactly sure WHY. This post is so informative and interesting :)

  9. Katie says:

    Great Post on Whole Grains, loving it!! Learn something new everyday!!!

    Thanks for the comment on my puppy, she is a cutie!!!

    • Glad it was helpful.

      How could I not comment on her?! You have to know…I never had a puppy. *sniff* The furthest my parents went, were rats/hamsters. And they belonged to my sister! haha

      My brother in law recently got a puppy and I have been enjoying that. Let me know if you want a picture for your collection, even though he is not mine.

  10. So glad to find your blog on this post. My mom fights eating whole grain foods. She says she doesn’t like the taste. I think it’s all about training your taste buds. I eat everything whole grain. Pasta, bread, tortillas… And I actually prefer the taste now. White bread is now too soft and bland for me. I’ll have to forward this to my mom :)

    • Completely agree with you! Taste is such a common hurdle for many people. But taste is mostly acquired. Thank you for mentioning that. I am planing on writing a post just about that exact topic, so you can forward that to her as well.

      In Switzerland we have a saying: “What the farmer does not know, the farmer does not like.”

      Glad you stopped by!

  11. Hi Christina, I like your name too! ;)

    Sure, any first will do, even a camera first, since it’s being used to take pics of your wonderful food! Thanks for stopping by and for the support!

  12. Very informative! The grinding process never crossed my mind…of course that’s processing of some sort.

    • Thank you for stopping by! It always makes me happy to meet someone new.

      Yes, it is definitely not obvious. I did a bunch of blood sugar tests to see how big the difference is (ground vs. whole). Similar to the research paper I linked to. I was shocked to see the difference. It really comes down to what you eat it with. A lot of fiber/fat and vinegar helps. Also try to avoid drinking WHILE you eat, that increases the rate at which your stomach empties: which means you feel hungry again faster and your blood sugar levels rise more quickly. I will definitely post more about this topic. Let me know if you have any questions.

      – Christina

  13. Jenn says:

    Okay so far I am loving your blog. Love the straightforward honest approach. This is a great post about whole grains. I’ve read that sprouted grains (and beans and nuts) are better for you because it either breaks down or increases (can’t remember which) an enzyme that makes them more digestible. These same people also state that unless it’s sprouted then it should probably not even be eaten. Can you shed some more light onto this?

    Have you read Nourishing Traditions? If so what do you think? It’s one of my favorites.

    Jenn

    • Thank you Jenn!

      No, I have not read Nourishing Traditions. I usually spend my time reading research papers (painful) or medical/science textbooks. But most of the time I am doing other things (I am sure you know how it is…)! I might read it this summer when I have some more time and let you know what I think!

      Yes, sprouting can have many great benefits. When you sprout a seed (making it moist) you trigger it to grow. This would happen in nature, when there is enough moisture in the soil for the plant to grow. So the seedling starts to change in order to grow into a plant. So, every time the plant changes it’s chemistry that means for us the nutritional value of the “food” changes (sorry plant you are just food for us sometimes).

      Specifically, some vitamin levels increase (see first 2 comments here for more information on this).

      Also the starches(chains of simple sugars) break up and increase the simple sugar content (for easier assimilation by the plant). The proteins partially break into their parts (amino acids) and fats into fatty acids. This means you can more readily absorb these nutrients and they are easier to digest, since the plant already did things that you would do in your body with your own digestive enzymes.

      Certain enzymes (catalysts of chemical reactions, and therefore the work horses of our cells) increase because they have work to do! This does not have a direct effect on health, but this is the reason why the plant can break down components such as fat, starch and protein (mentioned above).

      Other compounds decrease such as phytic acid. While phytic acid can act as an antioxidant, it also has been shown to reduce mineral absoption and some people react sensitive to it.

      Also, when you sprout certain seeds you place them in water. When you place beans for example in water, certain things can leach out (when they are water-soluble). While certain vitamins can be lost that way (not very much), other undesirable things can be too. When you soak beans, oligosaccharides (indigestible sugars) are too. These would otherwise be in your intestine and feed the bacteria there, creating gas and making you bloated. So soaking beans is a good thing!

      But making things more digestible is not necessarily good. This means that sugar can be taken up more easily and therefore have unfavorable responses with your blood sugar levels. Pasta for example has a lower GI when it is al dente than when it is soft (the former being harder to digest). But blood sugar is a complex topic and the GI of foods depends on many things. A lot of people do better with sprouted products in terms of their blood sugar, even though the sugar (vs starch) content is higher. This could be because sprouted breads etc. usually have the grain still intact (vs. ground). So I guess a good test would be comparing the same amount of WHOLE grain sprouted and unsprouted. And then again, everybody is different, so doing a blood test is the best way of knowing what works best for you.

  14. Jenn says:

    Thank you for your straightforward and easy to understand response. I’ve always wanted to sprout everything but with life I just don’t realistically have the time. Your post makes me feel better about my choice to eat of mixture of whole grain sprouted and unsprouted! Thanks!

    • You are welcome.

      It is definitely not worth it to sprout everything. As longs as you eat a balanced, healthy diet, cook in a nutrient-retaining way and take a vitamin supplement (just to be sure) vitamins/minerals should not be a concern. More is not necessarily better. And unless you have some stomach issues, making things easier to digest is in some ways useless. Nothing wrong with having your body work a little, it keeps you full longer too.

  15. Larry says:

    Very good article. I have to admit, I’m a recent convert to whole grains, but I’m really getting into both the taste and health aspects of them. I’ve found (a) that the best way to buy them is from bins in one of the more “health-oriented” markets, vs. small packages, and (b) the pricing varies widely, even among the afore-mentioned market types. Steel cut oats are a full two dollars a pound less at Mollie Stone’s, than Draeger’s, as an example. Both are very good upscale markets.

    • Hi Larry and welcome!

      Thank you for sharing your findings! I am sure a lot of people will find that information very useful!

      I agree, I find them much more flavorful than their white counterparts. Taste is all about getting used to it. I don’t think anyone is born preferring white over whole grain.

  16. A great article! I completely agree that balanced meals and portion controls are the key. This way your body gets the most vitamins and does not overdose on any particular food category.

  17. coco says:

    hi~ first time commenter. thanks for providing great information about nutrition and health in general. I have few questions:
    Q1: are you RD?
    Q2: what’s your thoughts about coffee? is it really necessary to decrease caffeine intake if one wants to get pregnant? how should a regular coffee drinker can decrease its intake without affecting too much (you know headache, dizziness, coffee addiction symptoms.
    thanks~~

    • Hi Coco! Welcome! So glad you found us! ☺

      About your questions. No, I am not an RD. Someone asked a similar question. You can read my answer on the “About” page, comment number six. Let me know if you have any more questions about that!

      Great questions about caffeine/coffee! That is definitely a hot topic. ☺ I am planning on writing a post on that topic, since several people have asked me about it. In short, it is one of this things were a clear cut answer is just not possible. It really depends on the individual and there are many cons and pros! It is also a question of how much and when (pregnant or not). So stay tuned! ☺

  18. First off, this is a beautiful blog! Your formatting is stellar! Second, this article is super interesting. My mother is highly gluten sensitive which gave me the idea to go off gluten in an attempt to improve my mood (so far I’ve been off refined sugar and gluten for four days, lol). It’s great to hear about the science behind the diet in a way that I can understand! And I’m definitely going to buy a glucose monitor RIGHT NOW. Thanks a bunch for adding me on foodbuzz and for introducing me to your blog!

    • Thank you so much Jessica! So glad you stopped by! Welcome!

      So glad you liked this article! What a great idea to buy the glucose monitor. Please feel free to email me if you have any questions about that or any sugar/gluten related topic. You can use he contact form (from the sidebar).

      Thanks for being my foodbuzz friend!

  19. Mae says:

    I find bread to be one of life’s greatest pleasures, but other than that I like to eat my carbs whole. I usually make a big batch of quinoa, brown rice, hulled barley, or steel cut oats in the beginning of the week, then add them to salads and heat them up for a lunch or dinner component.
    Oatmeal is also a great source of whole grains- it’s usually not too processed (just steamed and flattened) and is the perfect way to start a day.

    A rice cooker is a great investment. They’re only $15 and do so much! I make my oatmeal in the bowl of the rice cooker the night before, and then just turn it on in the morning (obviously refrigerated overnight.) They cook other grains perfectly, too!

    • Mark would agree with you about the bread! I do have to say I love it too. Your Swiss friend probably told you about the yummy bread in Switzerland. I just have not found one yet in the US that I like as much as some of the breads in CH. But I have to say… I live in Iowa City… so that does not say much. haha

      I used to bake it myself, but ever since we found out that Mark has developed some insulin resistance, we stopped eating flours mostly. That is what too much bread does to you, even if its whole grain… :(

      I have never owned a rice cooker. Sound great. Is is just faster than cooking in a pan? Is the clean-up easier?

      • Mae says:

        I’m still in high school and my parents have a glass cooktop that cooks pretty un-evenly. It also retains heat for way too long so if it’s boiling over and you turn it down, it will continue to boil over.
        Rice cookers are really cheap and all you do is add the grain+liquid then turn it on. It turns itself off and keeps the rice warm. It’s perfect for grains that are nice and fluffy. I love it!
        I’m sorry about Mark’s insulin resistance. I can’t wait to travel and taste the breads of the world, but you’re right- it’s hard to find really great bread here. When I’ve baked bread, it always turns out to be a disaster because I’m overly ambitious. I decide it needs to be whole grain sourdough with 3 different types of flours and poppy seed… That dough actually ended up on the floor. Oops!

  20. Caroline says:

    I am almost qualified as a Nutritionist and there has recently been a huge investment into wholegrain benefits. Soon to be published the results have found nothing beneficial from wholegrains.

    I am unsure as to whether they were looking at the fibre benefits, benefits to gut bacteria or things like beta-glucans in the whole grains. Overall, apparently oats are the way forward!

    • Hi Caroline and Thanks for stopping by!

      Thank you for your insights on this! I assume the study you are referring to is of epidemiological nature, correct? A lot of them are very poorly done. It should mainly serve as a starting point for more research, but the outcomes rarely are as conclusive to say something is “healthy” or not. I mean, it is just not that simple. Of course, I don’t know exactly how the study was conducted, but it would seem hard to correct for all the necessary factors. What was the single factor that was studied? Just eating whole grains vs. not does not mean all that much. Can you compensate for the beneficial substances in whole grains… etc. In my opinion, there are substances in whole grain that are beneficial and for some people adding whole grains is an improvement. Others eat too much or their body does not do well with one or all of them (diabetes, insulin resistance, intolerance etc.), making the cons outweigh the pros for that person.

      Do you have a source that you can direct me too?

      • Caroline says:

        Hi again!
        Yes its called Healthgrain. Its a huge project funded by the EU. The website is http://www.healthgrain.org/pub/
        I think it will be such a shame if they conclude there is nothing significant. I think they are looking at pretty much everything, its a massive project and going on for years. I’m not sure when it started or when it’s due to finish.
        Hope that’s helpful.

        • Thanks for the link! I am sure there is SOMETHING healthy about them. We already know that. There is some pros to almost every food, even foods like bacon. he question is just are they right for you and what amount, which ones etc. And these studies will not come up with an easier answer to this.

          I just read some stuff on their website and it looks like they already made up their mind that wholegrains are beneficial (whatever that means) and they are just trying to develop better cereals! Seems a little biased to me. Making better cereal is probably better than nothing, but it is still cereal…

  21. Chelsea says:

    Hi, I was wondering, did you ever find out if cutting out gluten can help under-eye circles? I’ve had awful one’s my whole life, and I have no idea how to get rid of them–if this could help, that would be great!

    • Hi Chelsea,

      If you have some kind of gluten intolerance it could contribute to under-eye-circles. There are actually different types of under-eye-circles, so it would be helpful to know what type they are and then you can narrow it down in figuring out what you can do to improve them. Email me if you want to know more.

  22. Gwen says:

    Yay!! I’m so happy someone else is informed and spreading the word on healthy foods. It is so hard to make healthy choices when, like you said, most manufacturers are very misleading about what’s really in their products. I think the best bet is to simply completly cut out any processed, boxed foods and stick with whole, raw foods and do it yourself. Did you mention that most wheat products today contain about 60% more gluten in them than in the past? Everything is super engineered and over processed these days.
    I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Hi Gwen! Thanks for your comment! Completely agree with your approach to eating better. And you are right… it’s scary how most of our food is barely real food anymore.

  23. Aw, this was an extremely good post. Taking the time and actual effort to generate
    a top notch article? but what can I say? I procrastinate a lot and don’t seem to get nearly anything done.

  24. Hi there, after reading this awesome paragraph i am
    also delighted to share my know-how here with colleagues.