The wonder of whole grains

They’re always present on lists of foods we should be eating, but what is it about whole grains that make them so good for us?

We know that whole grains are good for us, just as we know that eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables is beneficial to our health. But unfortunately, most of us seem to take very little notice, with the great majority of grains and grain-based products being consumed in their processed, refined form, which invariably sees the grain stripped of its health-giving properties.

During the milling process, the bran and the germ, which contain valuable nutrients, are removed, leaving the endosperm.While the endosperm is the largest part of the grain, it also has the fewest vitamins and minerals.

Whole grains, on the other hand, are a rich source of phytochemicals, enzymes, fibre, vitamins and minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, which combine to give us a huge range of health benefits, including the ability to dramatically lower cardiovascular disease, balance blood sugar and even help us lose weight.

What are whole grains?

Whole grains are the seeds of certain plants that come under the blanket term of grain crops. These include commonly consumed grains such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, rice and corn. To make them edible, the outer layer or husk of the grain is removed, leaving the ‘berry’ or ‘grout’ – the whole grain.

The whole grain consists of three layers: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The outer layer of the grain – the bran – contains essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals; the large middle part – the endosperm – consists mainly of starch and the nutrient-rich inner core, the germ, contains several vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, folate, phosphorus and magnesium.

The three layers of the grain need to be intact in order for a food to qualify as ‘whole’. Typical examples of whole grain foods include ‘wholemeal’ or ‘wholegrain’ breads or crispbreads, brown or wild rice, wholegrain breakfast cereals, puffed whole grains, oatmeal, whole or cracked wheat, buckwheat, couscous, popcorn and bulgar. Wholemeal bread or wholemeal flour is simply whole grains milled to a finer texture and should still contain all three layers of grain.

Refined grains and cereals are prevalent in the western diet, in the form of white bread, biscuits, cakes, pasta, white rice, refined breakfast cereals and pizza.Although refined grains are subsequently enriched with the addition of some nutrients, such as riboflavin, thiamine and iron, they are far less nutritious than whole grains.

How do they benefit our health?

Numerous studies have found that a diet high in whole grains rather than refined grains lowers your risk of developing several diseases. A large scale review of the evidence surrounding the health benefits of whole grains by the American Society for Nutrition concluded that whole grains played a major role in lowering the risk of chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, cancer (particularly colorectal cancer), and diabetes. It also contributed to body weight management and gastrointestinal health.

The reason given for such wide-sweeping benefits was the synergistic effect of essential macro and micronutrients found in whole grains. So enthused were the researchers that they highlighted the need for further examination into the role of wholegrain foods in disease prevention to gain a greater understanding of how exactly it works.

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