Do You Really Know the Difference Between Whole Grains and Refined Grains?
In the world of healthy eating, whole grains get plenty of praise for their plethora of health benefits, like providing plenty of fiber, helping to control hunger cravings, and more. But many people might not exactly know the differences of whole vs. refined grains, and why the former is so much more nutritious.
Here’s a breakdown on the different kinds of grains, and how to pick whole grains out at the grocery store.
What Are Whole Grains?
The bran for example, has plenty of B-vitamins. The germ also has B-vitamins, and it also offers up some protein, fatty acids, and minerals. The endosperm lays within the germ. It contains fiber and nutrients, and is also where the starchy carbohydrates are found.
But, when the bran and germ are removed, you are left with what is called a refined grain…
What Are Refined Grains?
A refined grain is a processed grain that only contains the endosperm. So, without the bran and germ, a refined grain offers much less fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein and fatty acids than a whole grain.
Although starchy refined carbs are much less nutritious than whole grains, they are often used to extend the shelf life of foods and can add versatility when cooking or baking.
Whole Grains vs. Refined Grains: Which Is Healthier?
Whole grains are better for you because of all the extra nutrients they carry compared to refined grains. They provide much more fiber, which is stripped out of the refined grains during the processing.
“Along with overall dietary balance, the fiber and micronutrients contained in whole grains naturally help your body thrive with good digestion, even blood sugar, and energy that last,” says McKenzie Caldwell, MPH, RDN.
The importance of fiber cannot be understated. Mother nature meant for fiber to go hand in hand with grains. Fiber helps carbohydrates to be absorbed slower as they move through your digestive system. This is believed to aid in blood sugar control, as blood sugar spikes are less drastic when carbohydrates are consumed with fiber. Additionally, research shows that people who eat more whole grains may benefit from healthier blood sugar control, with a possible protection from Type 2 diabetes and better chance for healthy weight management.
Whole grains are an essential part of almost all balanced diets, while processed refined grains, can be very unhealthy when consumed in excess.
What about enriched grains?
In the US and many other countries, it’s required that many refined grains be enriched or fortified with some key vitamins and minerals (most often B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid) and iron). Fortification means that the vitamins and minerals that are removed when whole grains are processed are added back to the final refined carbohydrate.
This is believed to have helped major health problems, such as, such as neural tube defects in newborn babies, which were much more common before the fortification began. But even though they are enriched, these grains are still not quite the same as whole grains.
“ Enriched grains don’t have everything added back in the same ratio that occurs naturally in whole grains, and manufacturers also don’t replace the missing fiber or protein,” Caldwell says. “When it comes to making a decision in the grocery store, it’s still healthiest to choose whole grains for the basics in your diet like sandwich bread, rice, and breakfast cereal.”
A List of Whole Grains
There are a huge variety of whole grains to choose from, some of which you’re probably familiar with, and others that may be a bit more obscure. Branch out and try some new ones from this list and you may be pleasantly surprised!
Many of these grains are also gluten-free, making them a great source of healthy, complex carbs for those who are allergic or sensitive to gluten.
*Asterisk denotes a naturally gluten-free grain. However, always check labels to confirm that it’s been processed in a gluten-free environment.
- Whole wheat
- Steel cut oats*
- Brown rice*
- Corn (and popcorn)*
- Wild rice*
So…is it ever ok to eat refined grains?
While choosing whole grains is definitely the healthier option, you don’t have to limit yourself to only these products. Many indulgent and delicious foods are made with refined grains, and those can be enjoyed in moderation as treats. As long as you are eating whole grains most of the time, it’s absolutely ok to eat refined grains from time to time as a treat. The key thing to remember is that they shouldn’t be a staple in your diet.
It’s important to have a healthy relationship to food, which means letting yourself enjoy treats and things that aren’t always the ‘healthy’ option on a regular basis. “I recommend my clients make at least half of the grains they eat whole, leaving some room for fun refined grain meals, snacks and treats to keep the joy in eating,” Caldwell says.