Understanding the Difference Between Whole Grain and Whole Grain Products

There is much debate about whether or not one should consume a low-carbohydrate diet.  Advocates of low-carbohydrate dieting often cite the fact that many who go on these diets lose weight, therefore these diets must work.  Other advocates address the issue that while humans have existed for hundreds of thousands of years, grain agriculture is a mere 10,000 years old (give or take) and therefore we are not designed to eat grains.  On the other hand most nutrition experts say that the majority of our diets should come from carbohydrates.

In my opinion, the confusion and debate stems from the fact that when people talk about carbohydrates, they lump a great deal of foods together that are completely different.  In fact, it is important to remember that carbohydrates are a type of macromolecule, not a type of food, as they are often referred.  Carbohydrates are found in everything from oats and barley to milk and apples.  That covers three food groups!  Cutting out carbohydrates from one’s diet would consist of removing most foods that we currently consume.

However, with so many foods containing carbohydrates, it is important to understand that these differences may impact how our bodies process them.  For example, research shows that fructose (a type of simple sugar)  consumed as part of  fruit does not have the same impact on insulin as fructose artifically added to foods.  In other words,  a whole food compared to a refined sugar has different impacts on the body’s biochemical processes.

Many people are aware that white bread or white pasta is also refined, but what many do not realize is that there is a difference between a whole grain and a whole grain product.  A whole grain is a naturally-occuring grain that is unrefined, unprocessed (or minimally processed) and the entire grain (endosperm, germ and bran) are kept in tact.  Examples would be oats, barley, millet, or sprouted wheat.  Whole grain products, on the other hand, would be whole grain bread or whole grain cereals.  Yes, they may be advertised as “100% whole grain”, but they are technically still refined as they have been processed to a point that nutrients have been removed and added back in (through enrichment).  For example, whole grain bread that is high in fiber (such as a few brands advertising “double fiber” and the like), get their extra fiber from inulin, not from the actual whole grain.  These products are not bad for you, and are certainly better than their white counterparts, but they are not truly whole grains.

My thoughts on this are that if the body differentiates between a naturally occuring sugar and a refined sugar, it most likely differentiates between a whole grain and a refined grain.  While research in this area is still lacking (from what I can see), it is possible that the negative results we may see from high-carbohydrate diets are not the result of being high in carbohydrates, but instead, high in refined foods.  And the positive gains some see from low-carbohydrate diets may actually be from removing refined products from one’s diet.

More research in this area needs to be done, but it seems to me through common sense that aiming to consume more whole grains, rather than whole grain products, would be advantageous to our health.

About Kimberly Dawson, M.S.

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