The cornerstone of an active and healthy life is the kitchen. Without paying attention to dietary balance and nutrition, progress may stall and goals may remain just out of reach. One simple and effective method of improving long-term nutrition is the addition of whole grains into one’s diet. By understanding the importance of whole grains and their variety of benefits, anyone can discover how to make them part of a healthy lifestyle.
Grains, also referred to as cereals, are the seeds of any grass cultivated for consumption. Everything from rice and oats to popcorn and wheat are considered grains, but not every grain is created equally. As the name suggests, whole grains include every part of the seed—bran, germ, and endosperm. However, most commercially-produced grains have been refined, a process which strips away the bran and germ to create a more even texture and a longer shelf-life.
The downside of refining grains is that many essential nutrients are removed as well, especially fiber. Refined grains may also be “enriched”, a process during which some of the lost nutrients are added back into the end product. Unfortunately, fiber that is lost during refinement cannot be regained, making these grains less nutritionally complete. Most foods that contain refined or enriched grains will say so clearly on the packaging, but another easy way to spot them is to look for the word “white”. White rice, white flour, and white bread, for instance, are all examples of grain products which have lost some of their nutritional benefit when compared to whole grains.
On the other hand, whole grains offer a wide variety of proven health benefits. Dietary fiber may reduce blood cholesterol levels, as well as lower the risk of heart disease and diabetes. For those struggling with weight loss, whole grains are also an indispensable tool. The fiber in whole grain products creates more satiety—in other words, a feeling of fullness after eating—than refined grains, meaning that it is possible to cut down portion sizes without becoming hungry. A range of studies from the Bell Institute of Nutrition suggests that other health benefits from whole grains include reduced risk of asthma, stroke, colorectal cancer, and gum disease.
In addition, whole grains contain many essential vitamins and minerals that aid greatly in maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle. B vitamins, which are often stripped during the refinement process, are essential for a healthy nervous system and also assist in regulating metabolism. Whole grains are also a major source of iron, which is especially important for women of child-bearing age, as iron deficiencies are a common issue among that demographic. Magnesium found in whole grains is used by the body to strengthen bones, while selenium fortifies the immune system.
In many cases, incorporating whole grains is a simple as replacing refined products with whole ones. Swapping white bread for wheat bread or enriched pasta for whole pasta is a quick and easy way to add fiber and complex carbohydrates to any diet. And while it is recommended to consume at least three servings of whole grains daily, even consuming as little as one serving daily has been shown in studies to decrease health risks. While no single food will create a healthy and balanced diet, including whole grains is a simple, proven, and cost-effective step towards living a healthier, happier life.