Whole Grains vs. Refined Grains – Are They All Bad?

by | Sep 28, 2020

Created by Rachel Raymond, Dietetic Intern

The war against grains, and specifically gluten, seems to never end. With gluten-free and grain-free options everywhere you turn, it’s a natural response to question whether eating grains is right for you. Today, I’m sharing the research-supported benefits of whole grains and some insights about gluten. By the end of this post, you’ll know the answer to the question, “Are grains bad?” 

Whole grains are high in fiber

The high fiber content in whole grains may be the most important reason to consume them. Here are just a few of the many benefits of fiber: it aids in digestion by breaking down food, it helps the body maintain regularity, it reduces cholesterol absorption, it slows digestion to help you feel full longer, and it helps manage blood sugar levels[1]. In addition to these benefits, the soluble fiber found in whole grains such as oats lowers post-meal blood glucose levels and reduces insulin resistance[1].

Help reduce inflammation

Short-term inflammation actually helps tissues repair, but long-term inflammation can contribute to disease[2]. Prolonged inflammation has recently been suggested as the underlying cause of a variety of diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and even certain infectious diseases[2]. In addition to being an underlying cause of disease, inflammation is shown to contribute significantly to the severity of certain diseases[2]. Many studies have found that consistent consumption of whole grains reduces inflammation, but refined grains increase inflammation[2].

Whole grains are antioxidant powerhouses & help prevent chronic diseases

Antioxidants are substances that protect cells against free radicals. Free radicals are produced during exercise, while breaking down food, and when the body is exposed to radiation or tobacco smoke. These free radicals may play a role in causing cancer and other diseases. Whole grains contain phenolic acids which are antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial (anti-bacterial) and anti-cancer potential[1].

Many human studies show that eating plenty of whole grains is protective against developing a few diet and age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and certain cancers[1]. In fact, one study found that those who ate a diet rich in grains had a 20-30% lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes[1]! Another study also found that those who ate lots of whole grains had a 35% reduced risk of death due to inflammatory diseases[2]. This same study found that the risk of death from heart disease was reduced by 28% for those who consumed diets rich in whole grains[2]. A few of the components of the whole grains responsible for these benefits include dietary fiber, phenolic acids (antioxidants), vitamins and minerals[1].

Now, what about gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in certain grains such as wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut, and semolina. About 1% of the population has a severe immune response to gluten that causes damage to the intestines resulting in uncomfortable gastrointestinal issues[3]. This severe allergy is called Celiac disease. These people cannot ingest even a crumb of gluten without side effects. 

If only 1% of the population has Celiac disease, then why are gluten-free diets so popular? It’s estimated that between 0.6% and 13% of people have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. These individuals also experience gastrointestinal issues when they eat gluten-containing foods. Many people say they feel better on a gluten-free diet, but that could be due to other reasons. When someone cuts gluten out of her diet, he or she also cuts out doughnuts, cookies, cakes, crackers, certain candies, and many other highly sugary, fatty, and processed foods. This could be a major reason why many people feel better on a gluten free diet.

If you are on a gluten-free diet, it’s important to make sure you eat plenty of gluten-free whole grains, beans, nuts, fruits, and vegetables to get enough fiber each day.

Dietary Recommendations:

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend 6 servings of grains each day, 3 of which should be whole-grains[4]. Fun fact: the average American eats 5 servings of refined grains and less than one serving of whole grains each day. Yikes!

What is the difference between whole grains and refined grains?

Whole grains such as whole wheat bread, rolled oats, and quinoa contain the entire part of the grain whereas refined grains such as white flour, white bread, white rice, and white pasta do not. 

Grains to include in your meals or snacks:

  • Whole grain/Whole wheat bread – Many breads are labeled “Wheat Bread” yet are not actually made of whole wheat. They can be marketed this way because technically they are made out of wheat… refined wheat. Along with deceiving labels, many breads are dyed brown to make them appear healthier when they are actually made out of refined white flour. To avoid these scams, look for bread that lists “Whole Wheat” as the first ingredient on the label.
  • Quinoa-There isn’t a type of quinoa that is refined, so any type of quinoa that you choose will be a great option. Cook and serve this grain exactly how you would cook white rice.
  • Oats-These are always whole grains. It’s best to make oatmeal from scratch because instant oatmeal packets usually have a lot of added sugar. You can also grind oats in a blender to make a fine flour for baking.
  • Whole wheat pasta-This is found in the same aisle as the white pasta. It usually has more fiber and protein than white pasta.
  • Whole grain crackers-These are great for incorporating whole grains on the go. Dip in hummus for a satisfying and high-fiber snack.

To find out more about what a whole grain is and how to include more in your diet, see our post titled “Choosing Whole Grains.”

[1] Whole grains and Phenolic Acids: A Review on Bioactivity, Functionality, Health Benefits and Bioavailability

[2] Whole-grain consumption is associated with a reduced risk of noncardiovascular, noncancer death attributed to inflammatory diseases in the Iowa Women’s Health Study

[3] Celiac Disease Facts and Figures

[4] Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020

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