Health Benefits of Whole Grains

Whole grains offer nutrients like iron and magnesium and help lower total cholesterol and inflammation levels.

As part of a balanced diet, you'll want to try to eat grains daily, with at least half of those being whole grains. Whole grains have several potential benefits, such as helping lower cholesterol or blood pressure and aiding digestion.

People with celiac disease or gluten intolerance cannot eat some types of whole grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. Still, there are many types of whole grains that are safe to consume and offer several health benefits. Read on to find out what whole grains are, how to find them, and why you should eat them.

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What Are Whole Grains?

Whole grains have all parts of the plant's whole seed, or the kernel, in its natural form. 

There are three edible parts to a kernel:

  • Bran: The outer skin of the kernel contains fiber, B vitamins, copper, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, antioxidants, and phytochemicals.
  • Germ: This part of the kernel has the potential to grow into another plant and contains vitamin E, healthy fats, and phytochemicals.
  • Endosperm: This is the biggest part of the kernel, containing proteins and starchy carbohydrates.

Examples of whole grains include:

  • Bulgur
  • Cornmeal
  • Faro
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole-wheat flour

You can eat whole grains in their whole forms or processed into foods like whole-grain bread and pasta. Although, not all bread and pasta are made of whole grains. Some brands use refined or enriched grains. In contrast to whole grains, refined grains have one or more of the three parts of the kernel removed. For example, the bran and germ will be stripped away in white or wheat flour. Refined grains are lower in nutrition than whole grains, as they lose nutrients and fiber.

Enriched grains are refined grains with B vitamins—folic acid, niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin—and iron added to the grain. Enriched grains lack fiber and protein. Keep in mind that just because bread looks brown like whole grain bread often does, it does not mean it is made from whole grains. It may be colored with caramel coloring, molasses, or brown sugar.

Benefits of Whole Grains

Whole grains have more nutrients than refined and enriched grains. For example, whole grains are a source of insoluble fiber that helps manage weight, promotes gut and heart health, and keeps your bowel movements regular.

Contains Resistant Starch

Your body breaks down carbs into glucose, or sugar, your body's primary energy source. Resistant starch is a carb that the small intestine does not easily digest. Instead, resistant starch ferments in the large intestine. Resistant starch then acts as a prebiotic for healthy bacteria, known as probiotics.

Whole grains are a good source of resistant starch. Some evidence suggests that you consume 15–20 grams of resistant starch daily. Sources of resistant starch include:

  • Beans, peas, and lentils
  • Cooked rice
  • Oats, oatmeal, or barley
  • Plantains or green bananas

Lowers Blood Pressure

The fiber in whole grains helps lower blood pressure. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of the most critical risk factors for heart disease, the leading cause of death among adults in the United States. The higher the intake of whole grains, the lower the risk of hypertension.

Lowers Inflammation

A review published in 2020 found whole grains have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that might decrease the risk of inflammatory conditions like asthma and allergies.

Some evidence suggests that whole grains help decrease inflammatory marker levels. For example, whole grains may reduce C-reactive protein (CRP) levels. High CRP levels signal inflammation in the body. 

Researchers have linked high CRP levels to health conditions like:

  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Premature birth
  • Preeclampsia, or high blood pressure during pregnancy

May Contribute to Longevity

Not only will whole grains help you live better, but they may also help you live longer. Research has linked whole grains to a reduced risk of all-cause mortality. For example, a study published in 2021 found that eating whole grains may protect life expectancy more than a high-protein and high-fat diet.

Might Reduce Cancer Risk

Some evidence suggests that consuming whole grains may lower the risks of certain cancers, such as colorectal, breast, and pancreatic cancer. Though, the exact effects of whole grains on cancer risk remain unknown.

Eating a healthy, balanced diet plays a role in reducing the risk of some cancers. Including whole grains, as well as fruits and vegetables, in your diet can help decrease cancer risk.

Protects Teeth and Gums

Gum disease is linked to inflammation and other health conditions like heart disease. Because of their anti-inflammatory properties, whole grains may offer protection against gum disease. 

In a study published in 2016 of almost 6,000 adults, researchers found that high-fiber diets—including whole grain consumption—were linked to fewer instances of gum disease than low-fiber diets.

Reduces Cholesterol

Some whole grains, such as oatmeal and oat bran, help prevent your body from absorbing cholesterol. High LDL ("bad") cholesterol and triglycerides are significant risk factors for heart disease.

Regulates Blood Sugar

One of the main benefits of whole grains is that, compared to refined grains, they keep your blood sugar from spiking. Regulating your blood sugar levels is helpful if you have prediabetes or diabetes.

The soluble fiber in whole grains absorbs water, which becomes a gel-like substance. The soluble fiber gel slows digestion and may make it harder for the glucose from carbohydrates to be absorbed into the intestines, which may result in lower blood sugar increases after eating.

Supports Gut Health

The insoluble fiber in whole grains helps maintain gut health. For example, diverticulosis is a condition that forms small pouches that push on weak spots in the colon wall. Diverticulosis can lead to diverticulitis, which causes inflammation of those pouches if it worsens. Research has found that insoluble fiber helps protect against diverticulitis.

Eating whole grains instead of refined grains for as little as six weeks increases the number of healthy bacteria in your gut. Having too many unhealthy bacteria in your gut may cause inflammation.

Weight Management

Whole grains are a source of insoluble fiber, which moves food through the digestive system and adds bulk to your diet. As a result, whole grains help you feel full longer, which enables you to eat less and manage your weight.

Although, there is no clear evidence that eating whole grains directly lowers body weight or fat percentage. Still, eating highly processed foods, such as refined grains, increases food intake and weight gain.

Over the long haul, whole grains can lead to healthy body fat distribution, even if eating whole grains does not make you lose weight.

Nutrition of Whole Grains

The nutrition of whole grains varies depending on the type of food. For example, the nutrition in one regular slice of multi-grain bread, including whole grains, includes:

  • Calories: 68.9
  • Fat: 1.1g
  • Sodium: 99.1mg
  • Carbohydrates: 11.3g
  • Fiber: 1.9g
  • Added sugars: 1.7g
  • Protein: 3.5g

Fiber is a primary reason to eat whole grains. You'll get nearly four grams of fiber in two slices of multi-grain bread but only 1.35 grams from the same amount of white bread. Likewise, there are 3.2 grams of fiber in one cup of cooked brown rice, compared to 0.63 grams in cooked white rice.

Keep in mind that not all whole grains are high in fiber. Whole grains highest in fiber tend to be wheat, oats, and barley per 100 grams of each grain.

Adults in the United States do not consume enough fiber. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) advises that, on average, females consume 25 grams of fiber daily, while males consume 38 grams.

Whole wheat or whole grains generally contain more minerals than refined grains, including:

  • Iron: Transports oxygen throughout the body and helps prevent anemia
  • Magnesium: Builds strong bones and maintains heart and nerve function
  • Selenium: Helps make proteins called antioxidant enzymes that protect against cell damage
  • Zinc: Supports cell growth and the immune system

Whole grains are not usually an abundant source of calcium. Still, one grain—a form called teff that is common in Ethiopia—provides some calcium. One cup of cooked teff has about 123 milligrams of calcium, similar to a half cup of cooked spinach. The NIH advises that adults consume 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily.

Risks of Whole Grains

Generally, whole grains are safe to consume. However, people with celiac disease cannot eat some types of whole grains. Wheat, rye, and barley are sources of gluten.

Gluten triggers an immune response that damages the small intestine in people with celiac disease. Celiac disease causes symptoms like bloating, constipation, and diarrhea. Likewise, people with gluten intolerance or sensitivity may develop similar symptoms.

Instead, stick with the following grains and starches if you follow a gluten-free diet:

  • Amaranth
  • Buckwheat
  • Cornmeal
  • Gluten-free oats
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Rice

Tips for Consuming Whole Grains

To identify whole grains, look for the word "whole grain"—or the name of the grain—on the ingredient label. In addition, check for "whole wheat" or "100% whole wheat" on the packaging. Ensure the grain is one of the first three ingredients on the label.

Aim to consume five to eight servings of whole grains daily. One serving of whole grains may include the following:

  • 1/2 cup of cooked brown rice
  • 1/2 cup of whole-wheat pasta
  • Five whole-wheat crackers
  • One cup of multi-grain cereal
  • One slice of multi-grain bread

A Quick Review

Whole grains contain all the parts of a seed. Those grains contain macronutrients like protein and fiber and micronutrients like calcium, iron, and zinc. Whole grains offer health benefits like reducing inflammation linked to chronic health conditions and contributing to a longer lifespan.

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