Why are whole grains healthier?

Originally Published: March 22, 1996 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: August 7, 2007
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Dear Alice,

Can you explain the difference in healthiness of breads and grains? Are all darker grains better for you than lighter counterparts? Why? If all bread is low in fat, how can it be bad for dieters, etc.?

Dear Reader,

Whole grains are healthier than refined grains because they contain higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, fiber, essential fatty acids, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. When a grain is refined, the bran and germ (which are nutrient-, protein-, and fiber-rich) are separated from the kernel so that only the carbohydrate-rich endosperm remains. While refined grains give baked goods a softer texture and an extended lifetime, eliminating the bran and germ makes the product significantly less nutritious.

The nutrients in whole grains have been shown to play a key role in reducing the risk of disease. For instance, the antioxidants in whole grains are believed to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal and hormone-dependent cancers. Soluble fiber in whole grains has been shown to decrease the LDL ("bad") cholesterol while increasing the HDL ("good") cholesterol. Fiber also helps regulate your gastrointestinal system, alleviating constipation and promoting colonic health. Eating whole grains may also prevent the onset of type two diabetes. The fiber in whole grains slows the digestion of carbohydrates, helping your body maintain steady blood sugar levels.

Dieters should keep in mind that even though most bread is low in fat, someone could still overeat, taking in more calories than she or he needs (whether from bread, or any other foods). Extra calories, if not used up through activity, can, and probably will, be converted and stored as fat. So for the most part, you're right: it isn't the bread that is fattening, but excess calories. Dieters should focus on the overall number of calories they are eating, and make sure those calories are coming from nutritious foods. Of course, those in the know would never go on a diet that suggests cutting out whole grains. In fact, the Federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating at least three servings (equivalent to 3 ounces) of whole-grains per day. A one-ounce serving can be in the form of a slice of bread; a half cup of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta; or about 1 cup of dry cereal (depending on its density). Many people include whole grains as a part of their weight-loss plan because the fiber in whole grains may help you feel full more easily.

Looks can be deceiving, however. Many products may be marketed to look like they were made from whole grains. "Stone-ground", "multi-grain", "100% wheat", or "bran" do not necessarily indicate that a product is whole grain. Enriched white flour is also not nutritionally equivalent to whole wheat flour – of the 22 nutrients reduced in the milling of white flour, only four are replaced through the enrichment process. As a result, bread made with enriched flour lacks copper and zinc, provides 75% less dietary fiber, and has less B vitamins.

Don't be fooled by marketing claims; read the small print! You can look for the descriptors "whole grain," "100% whole wheat," etc. Another common trick to make refined grain products look like they are made from whole grains is adding molasses or caramel coloring to make bread darker. Many whole grains are dark; however, some whole grains may be naturally light in color, resembling what many people think of as refined grains.  The key to success for those seeking whole grains is to become a judicious reader of the listed ingredients.

Good luck and enjoy your whole grains!