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How whole grains can make your bread habit healthier

A dietitian shares tips on getting more whole grains into your diet — from bulgur to popcorn.
Foods in their whole state tend to be the most nutritious — and that’s certainly the case with whole grains.
Foods in their whole state tend to be the most nutritious — and that’s certainly the case with whole grains.Getty Images/TODAY

Bread is back! In recent years, the market for bread was softening, most likely due to concerns about carbs. With the stress of the coronavirus crisis, nearly one-third of Americans have taken comfort in bread, according to a national survey carried out by the Grain Foods Foundation.

And while bread may be having a moment, consumers seem to be having some trouble identifying which breads and other grain-based foods are healthier, according to a new report published in the August 2020 issue Public Health Nutrition. The results suggested that consumers are frequently confused by labels that claim a product contains whole grains, which puts them at risk of choosing less healthy breads, crackers, cereals and other products.

Here’s what you need to know about grain foods, like bread, and how to enjoy them healthfully.

What is a whole grain compared to a refined grain?

All grain foods, like rice and wheat, start out as whole grains, which means that all the parts of the grain, including the bran, endosperm and germ, are present. This is important since each of these components offers health-supporting nutrients, such as fiber, B vitamins, magnesium and antioxidants.

The difference between whole grains and refined grains is that refined grains are missing one or more parts of the grain’s structure, and this removal strips up to two-thirds of the grain’s nutrients. After a grain has been refined, it may be enriched with some of the missing vitamins and minerals, but the nutrients aren’t added back in the same proportions. While refined grains can help you fill nutrient gaps in your diet, your body doesn’t respond to refined and enriched grains the way it does to whole grains. Foods in their whole state tend to be the most nutritious — and that’s certainly the case with whole grains.

Is it a big deal to eat white bread every day?

There is always room in your diet for less healthful foods if you’re otherwise selecting nutritious foods, like veggies, fruits, pulses (beans, legumes and peas), nuts, seeds and whole grains. Ideally, though, most of the grains you choose should come from whole grain sources. Numerous studies back up the fact that replacing refined grains with whole grains can lead to big health benefits.

In one small study, researchers looked at inflammatory markers among overweight people eating the same amount of either whole or refined grains. These markers are indicative of heart, liver and vascular health along with metabolic health. When eating whole grains, participants experienced improvements that could translate to a lower risk of chronic diseases. On the other hand, the refined grain eaters had changes in their liver health and inflammation that could end up leading to health issues.

Another small study looked at people with pre-diabetes who were fed either whole grains or refined grains for 8 weeks. Both diets were matched for calories, fat, carbs and protein, and both induced weight loss. Yet there were some major changes to the internal mechanisms of the different participants’ bodies. After eight weeks on the whole grain diet, the cells responsible for secreting insulin were working better, which may ultimately lead to improvements in blood sugar control.

These are just a couple of examples — there are hundreds of studies that demonstrate the value of focusing on whole grains over refined ones. Among the benefits are a lower risk of a lower risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as an easier time managing weight.

Does it matter which whole grains I choose?

Even whole grains can be processed to varying degrees. Take oats, which are all whole grains. However, steel cut oats are coarser than instant oats and they take longer to cook — both indicators that the steel cut oats are less processed. In a small study, researchers examined how a whole grain bread’s particle size — for example, stone ground or milled — influenced blood sugar levels. In this study, participants experienced better blood sugar levels after eating the less processed, coarser whole grains compared to the more processed whole grains, and the results were linear, meaning that the more processed the grain, the worse the response was.

Don’t get carried away with this, though. If you’re currently eating mostly refined and enriched grains, trade up to mostly whole grains. If you’re already enjoying whole grains, then you might like to upgrade to single-ingredient whole grains and coarser whole grain breads like whole-grain wheat bread and rye or multigrain bread.

How to choose whole grains

If you want to break out of your bread rut, there are many delicious whole grains to consider. If you’re in a sandwich routine, use the fillings as layers in a hot or cold grain bowl or switch things up and include a range of wholesome grains. Here are some ideas:

  • Bulgur is a high-fiber grain that only takes 10 minutes to cook in boiling water. It makes a delicious nutty side dish or grain salad.
  • Corn may surprise you here, but it’s actually considered a whole grain. Popcorn is probably the most fun way to enjoy it.
  • Millet is a gluten-free grain that’s often ground and prepared like polenta.
  • Quinoa is higher in protein than many other grains, but it’s actually not a grain at all; it’s the seed of a green, leafy plant. However, since it has similar nutritional properties as a grain, we treat it as such. Quinoa makes a great side dish at lunch and dinner, but it can also be eaten with baking spices like cinnamon and nutmeg as a hot breakfast cereal.
  • Colored rice, like brown, black and red rice, as well as wild rice, are gluten-free grains that stand in well at many meals. In addition to the ordinary uses, colored rice can transform rice pudding into a somewhat healthier dessert.

Get the portion sizes right

One issue with grain foods — even whole grains — is that it’s easy to overdo them. Most adults need between three to six ounces a day, though younger men may need up to eight ounces daily. This may be surprising considering that a bagel is typically four ounces — or four servings. A serving is considered 1/2 cup of grains (like pasta or rice) or one slice of bread, but for popcorn, the serving size is 3 cups. Oftentimes, grains and meats are the main parts of a meal and the veggies are an afterthought. To get the portion sizes right, consider giving veggies more room on your plate and making grains the side dish.