These days, grain products seem to be public enemy number one. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if I had a nickel for every time that I heard someone blame weight gain on bread, pasta or another grain product, I’d be a rich lady. Stopping the unnecessary restriction of grain products seems like an impossible battle, but I’m up for the challenge. Read on for why you should eat grain products, even refined grains products, for overall health and performance.
Contrary to what seems to be the predominant thought, limiting grain products is not necessary for weight loss or maintaining a healthy weight. In fact, while grain product consumption has been decreasing, weight has been increasing and studies have found no significance difference in BMI between groups that eat grain products versus those who don’t eat grain products. Let’s stop blaming weight gain on bread, pasta or other grain products. Excess calorie intake causes weight gain. This excess calorie intake could be coming from grain products, but it could also be coming from excess meat, added fats or any other food or food group. Beyond weight, grain products are important for overall health. Research has shown that people who eat 3 servings of whole grains per day had decreased rate of cancer, cardiovascular vascular disease, stroke and type two diabetes.
When it comes to grain products, you may have heard that you should make half of your grain products whole grain. To explain this recommendation, let’s start with differentiating whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains contain all the parts of the original kernel: the bran, germ and endosperm. Examples include: oats, whole grain flour, quinoa, brown rice, corn, barley etc. Refined grains, on the other hand, have some of the germ and bran remove. Examples include: white rice, white flour, white pasta etc. However, not all refined grains are created equal. We can further break down refined grains into tier 1&2, which include white bread, white pasta, rice etc. and tier 3 &4, which include various desserts and snacks made with refined grains.
In Canada, by law, refined grain products have extra vitamins and minerals added back into them. These include niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, iron and folic acid. While whole grains contain less of these nutrients, they do have more fibre, zinc, magnesium, potassium and phosphorus than refined grains. It’s because of this nutrient difference that it is recommended to make half of your grains whole grains. Selecting the occasional refined grain could potentially provide a benefit from a nutrient perspective. For instance, higher intakes of whole grains are associated with a decreased intake of folate and iron. This is especially important for athletes, who do have increased requirements of some nutrients, especially iron. However, my only issue with this argument is that we should be able to get these nutrients from other whole foods, such as iron and folate from vegetables and legumes rather than relying on refined grains.
While refined grains may provide a good source of various vitamins and minerals because they contain less fibre than whole grains, they have a higher glycemic index. High glycemic index foods raise blood sugar faster than low glycemic foods. However, the glycemic index of a food needs to be used with caution because it doesn’t take into consideration other dietary factors that lower the glycemic response such as protein, fat and fibre. For instance, while having a piece of white bread or pile of white pasta by itself will cause a rapid rise and fall in blood sugar, having a tuna on white bread with vegetable sticks or a reasonable portion of white pasta with meat sauce and a spinach salad, will not result in this same rapid rise and fall in blood sugar. Athletes, because of the physiological changes that occur with exercise training, don’t get the same glycemic response to carbohydrates as non-athletes. In addition, in many cases, athletes may benefit from high glycemic index foods such as during exercise and post-exercise to promote rapid repletion of depleted carbohydrate stores.
Let’s stop demonizing grain products and work at finding a balance. Most people fall into one extreme or the other, not making half their grain products whole grains, selecting tier 3&4 refined grains and eating excessive portions or avoiding grain products completely. Rather than having a donut or granola bar for breakfast, have a slice of toast with peanut butter or rather than filling your entire plate with pasta at dinner, reduce your portion to a fist size. When quality grain products are selected and consumed in appropriate portions, they are an important part of a balanced diet, providing important nutrients, reducing risk of chronic disease and helping you perform at your best.