Grains: Dietary Friend or Foe?

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I know you’ve heard it: "Grains make you fat and cause chronic disease!" "Grains have toxic anti-nutrients!" "Grains have nothing good to offer!"

In an era of low-carb, Paleo, and ketogenic diets, grains are more maligned than ever. Should you go against the grain or not? Here’s the scoop on 4 myths about grains.

Myth: Grains lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. People who consume the most whole grains have the lowest risk of dying from heart disease (1). Population studies also link eating whole grains to a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Oats and barley, in particular, help to lower cholesterol levels, which reduces your risk for cardiovascular disease. And their fiber helps to improve insulin action and lower blood glucose levels – a big plus for people with diabetes or prediabetes.

Myth: Grains contain anti-nutrients. An anti-nutrient is any compound in food that interferes with your body’s absorption of or ability to use a nutrient. They aren’t as scary as they sound. Phytic acid in grains is one of those compounds because it can block the absorption of zinc and magnesium. But it takes a lot of phytic acid to cause a nutrient deficiency. Besides, phytic acid might even have some anti-cancer potential (2). And it would be nearly impossible and not at all necessary to avoid all antinutrients like oxalates in spinach and glucosinolates in broccoli. Even fiber is an antinutrient.

Myth: Refined grains are always bad. It’s the actual food that matters. Consider this: Even though they’re both made from milk, there’s an obvious difference between a cup of plain yogurt and a gigantic bowl of ice cream. Likewise, there’s a big difference between various types of foods made with enriched wheat flour. Wheat flour can give us bread for a sandwich of lean proteins and vegetables. But it can also give us donuts, cookies, and biscuits overflowing with sausage gravy. A few refined grains won’t undo your healthful diet. And besides, refined flour products, if fortified, also have something special to offer. Because they’re fortified with the B vitamin folic acid, they help to prevent serious birth defects. Researchers found that since mandatory folic acid fortification, about 1,300 babies are born each year without neural tube defects who would have likely been affected otherwise (3).

Myth: Whole grains take forever to cook. Yes, brown rice simmers on the stove for much longer than white rice, and barley takes at least 45 minutes! But there are some great solutions to these obstacles. First is to batch cook whole grains when you have the time. Pack them up in single-serve containers to eat later in the week, or put them in the freezer to eat some weeks later. An even simpler solution is to purchase quick-cooking varieties that have been processed in a way to get them on your table faster or buy precooked varieties that need only heating in your microwave. These speedy whole grains are nearly identical to the long-cooking varieties.

Bottom line: Don’t go against the grain! It’s smart to make at least your half your grains -- or about 3 servings -- whole grains. That’s about 1½ cups of whole grains (1 slice of bread is the equivalent of 1/2 cup grain) over the course of your day. For refined grains, focus on more wholesome choices like fortified pasta and bread that contain nutrients and bring other nutrient-dense foods with them. Hold back on indulgent refined grain products like cakes, cookies, buttery biscuits, and toaster pastries.

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, CHWC, FAND


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