If you have tried different types of diets in the past, chances are that you have come across the school of thought that brown or wholemeal varieties of staple food such as rice, noodles, pasta and bread are much healthier than that of their white counterparts. Indeed, many diet programs are really good at dictating this, but not many of them are good at articulating why it is the case. Well, today’s post aims to do just that, in a way that you can understand, of course.
The whole concept behind the whole thing can be boiled down to one concept – which is that eating whole grains are supposedly more beneficial than refined grains. The reason why we are talking about grains today is because that is essentially what these carbohydrate staples food are made of. Bread is made of grains, so is rice and even flour. The way bread, rice, noodles or bread is produced requires some processing of their key ingredient, which would be a type of grain, at least to a certain extent. You’re at least aware that those food items don’t grow on trees, right?
Why have we included grains in our diet? And has it always been that way? If you agree with science about our origins and evolution, it is unsurprising that our intake of grains during the “cavemen” era was very low, as our diets are mostly meat and direct plant matter. The social norms of that time was such that the men would hunt while the women gathered the plant products.
As we progress with time, our diet also shifted due to spatial changes that are beyond the scope of this short article. No one really knows when we started to eat grain, but there has been evidence of wild cereal appearing in the diet of some of our distant ancestors. Nevertheless, as time passed, we have started to include grains in our diet because of one reason – carbohydrates.
If you have any knowledge of human physiology, it’d probably be no surprise that our body could do well with carbohydrates. These are the macronutrients which provide energy in a fairly consistent way that does not stress your body out too much. This is as opposed to proteins, which require a complex process to provide energy, and fats, which is energy-rich but takes time to metabolise. I talk about this in greater detail in the Strategic Nutrition Guide.
There are, in the most general terms, two types of carbohydrates – simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are sugars that can provide energy quickly and cause your hormones to go haywire. Starches such as breads, pasta, rice and noodles provide complex carbohydrates, which can release energy efficiently and consistently, which is why it forms the base of many diets today. And of course these “starchy carbohydrates” refer to grains.
To keep things simple, all you need to know is that there are two general types of grain – whole grain and refined grain. Whole grains are the “pure” form of grains that are found in nature. These are the cereals and seeds of grasses that come different shapes and sizes, which we have learnt how to cultivate for food. If you look at the cross section of a whole grain, you will see different components such as the germ, endosperm, and bran.
Whole grains, also known as unrefined grains, in its default form, contains a lot of fibre, as well as a myriad of other important nutrients, some of which include Magnesium, Potassium, and Selenium. Most of these fibre and nutrients are found in the bran and germ component of the grain. Foods that are “whole grain”, as we know it, include brown rice, whole wheat pasta, buckwheat pancakes, or whole grain or multigrain bread varieties. As you can probably tell, they are full of goodness.
While whole grains are full of goodness, there are reasons why they might not have been so appealing in the past. Because of how it is, the texture of whole grains are often coarse and unappealing, and the shelf life is also limited. So how do we smoothen out its texture and increase its lifespan? We can do it with certain refining processes, the most common of which is known as milling. After refining, the grain is still a grain, but it does not have its bran and germ left. These are often known as refined grains.
What do you think happens when you remove the bran and germ from the grain? Yes, that’s right – the fibre and other nutrients are also lost, and you don’t get the benefit of having those. That is why health experts often speak out against having white bread, white rice or pasta – because these are produced from grain that has the essence of their goodness ripped out of them. So you won’t get the bang for your buck when you consume that respective type of carbohydrate.
Let’s also not forget one thing – that fibre, while being calorie-free, is very filling and can help stave off hunger. This means that you will feel fuller for longer, as well as not eat as much in the first place. So if you are trying to lose weight by controlling your diet, such as described in the Strategic Nutrition Guide, it would be wise to take that into consideration.
And to make matters worse, a lot of the grains we consume in modern day are of the refined variety. These not only include white rice, white bread and noodles, but flour, cereals, desserts, crackers and biscuits. Not only are they more marketable, most of us, deep down inside, also perceive them to be more delicious. Furthermore, the long shelf life is another draw card. Another important point to make is that due to its nature, it can also wreak havoc on your blood sugar levels the same way simple carbohydrates can, because it hold the middle ground between simple and complex carbs.
While I may have painted a bleak picture of the whole thing, all is not lost. These days we have what is called “enriched grains”, which are grains that have been fortified with some of the nutrients that have been lost during the refining process. In fact, most refined grains these days are enriched. In Australia, for example, white breads have been fortified with folic acid.
While this concept of having “enriched grains” is not bad, nothing beats the original, i.e. consuming whole grains. While fortification puts some of the nutrients back, it is still compromised. Furthermore, the process usually does not put fibre back along with the nutrients. Also, doesn’t it seem strange and convoluted to take the nutrients out only to put them back in, just for the sake of increasing shelf life and making it look more pretty?
So my charge to you is this: if you find it palatable enough, try to use whole wheat pasta, brown rice and whole grain breads when you can. They are just so full of goodness that you can’t afford to pass them up if you are trying to lose weight or clean out your diet. If you have to eat the refined varieties, just limit your intake and don’t go crazy when eating those. Hope this helps.
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