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The Bottom Line in Health: Not All Grains Are Created Equal

Did you ever wonder if you should be making your sandwich with white or whole wheat bread? Or whether you should be getting brown instead of white rice with your dish? Do you fear sacrificing your beloved white grains and cringe at the words “whole wheat?” Making the healthy choice can be both confusing and difficult for many, as they have consumed mostly white grains their entire lives, and do not enjoy the taste of whole-wheat grains on their palate. However, with a better understanding of the health benefits offered by whole-wheat grains, you may reconsider going straight for the lighter bread next time you go to have your morning toast or afternoon turkey sandwich.

In order to clear the air on the white vs. whole wheat bread decision one needs to understand what composes a grain. Biologically, a grain is the edible seed from a plant in the grass family. Commonly used grains include wheat, oats, corn and barley with each grain consisting of four main parts. The outermost layer is the hull, which is always removed before the grain is consumed. Underneath the hull is the bran, where most of the fiber as well as B-vitamins and oils are stored. Below the bran is the endosperm, which is made up of starches and proteins. The innermost layer of the grain is the germ, which contains the antioxidants vitamin E and B. Whole-grain products, as their name implies, use flour or meal ground from the whole grain, excluding the hull. Refined flours are striped of the hull, bran, and germ through a heavy refining process that leaves only the endosperm to be ground into the final product. With an understanding of what a grain is composed of, you can begin to realize the health benefits of choosing whole wheat over refined grains.

When put toe-to-toe with whole wheat bread, white is a nutritional lightweight. One of the primary nutritional differences between the two products is the food’s fiber content. Dietary fiber has a number of healthy properties such as preventing constipation and lowering blood cholesterol. An additional benefit of fiber is its ability to provide a feeling of fullness, reduced consumption of food and noticeable weight loss.  The refining process associated with making white flour separates the fiber-rich bran from the rest of the grain, so white flour typically contains less fiber than its whole-grain counterpart. For example, 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour contains six times more fiber than an equal serving of white flour. By choosing whole wheat grains, you can more easily satisfy the daily requirement for fiber of twenty-eight grams.

Whole-wheat flour provides another nutritional advantage over some white flours due to its vitamin content. Whole-wheat flour contains several vitamins, including folate, riboflavin and a number of B vitamins that assist the body’s metabolic processes and can reduce chronic illnesses. Since the processing involved in making white flour destroys the grain’s brand and germ, some types of white flour contain lower levels of the vitamins stored in these layers. For example, a half-cup of whole-wheat flour contains three milligrams of niacin, while an equivalent portion of white flour contains only eight tenths of a milligram. To make up for this deficiency, some food manufacturers enrich their white flour with vitamins to replace the nutrients lost during processing. As a result, whole-grains often contain higher levels of vitamins than grains that are not enriched, but roughly compares to vitamin-enriched white grains. Check the nutrition label to determine if a bag of white grains has added vitamins, and compare different brands to maximize your vitamin intake.

In addition to the nutritional content of whole grains, they also have a significant impact on your alertness and attitude throughout the day. Any carbohydrate-containing food, like a grain, has some effect on your blood sugar. After you eat a meal, your body breaks the carbohydrates from your food into glucose, a simple sugar. This glucose then enters your bloodstream, so it can circulate throughout your body and provide fuel to your cells. The glycemic index, or GI, of a food serves as a measure of how quickly this process occurs. High-GI foods lead to rapid blood sugar spike, followed by energy crashes that leave you hungry and irritable shortly after eating. Low-GI foods absorb more slowly to prevent rapid increases in blood sugar, so you are satisfied for longer after your meal. According to Harvard Medical School, bread made with one hundred percent whole-wheat flour has a GI of fifty-one, while bread made with white wheat flour has a GI of seventy-one. If you seek to regulate energy and attitude after a meal, choose foods made with whole-wheat grains.

With this foundational understanding of the difference between the two types of grain products, why do manufacturers continue to produce the nutritionally inferior white grains and why do consumers continue to purchase them at a higher volume than their whole-wheat counterparts? To begin, white flour gives you light, tasty bread, while whole wheat breads are denser and heartier. For many, this difference in texture and taste is enough evidence to make them opt for white grains. Furthermore, its baking properties are more predictable than that of whole-wheat flour, so it makes cooking common foods like pasta, pizza, cakes, and cookies simpler. From the manufacturers’ perspective, they continue to produce white flour because it has longer shelf life, and has been observed to be more popular by consumers.

You can make a few easy substitutions in your diet to reap the nutritional benefit of whole-wheat flour, without sacrificing the foods you love. When you bake at home, try using a mix of whole-wheat and white flours for cookies, muffins and cakes. At the grocery store, check your bread labels to select loaves made with one hundred percent whole wheat. This bread is made using exclusively whole-wheat flour, whereas those labeled “whole-wheat” usually contain a mix of whole wheat and white flours. In the pasta isle, skip the white pasta and opt for noodles made from a mix of white and whole-wheat flour. Pasta made with one hundred percent whole-wheat can feel gummy after cooking. This is attributed to the pasta’s higher fiber content, so choosing pasta that is made of from a mix of whole-wheat and white flour boosts the nutritional content of your meal, without sacrificing texture.

Incorporating whole grains in your diet will yield great health benefits. For men and women ages nineteen to thirty, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends consuming six to eight ounces of grains per day. tFurthermore, they recommend that at least half of these grains be whole-wheat grains.  While you should not immediately go “cold turkey” and remove refined grains form your diet tomorrow, you should strive to reach this benchmark where half of the grains you eat on a daily basis come from whole wheat grains.  Scientific research continues to support the key role of whole grains in reducing chronic illnesses and aiding in weight loss. So next time you go grocery shopping, or have a meal at a restaurant, consider your body’s health and choose the whole grains!
A Note on the Author: the Bottom Line In Health seeks to provide simple fitness and nutrition tips for the Yeshivah University community. As a National Academy of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness and Nutrition Specialist, it is my goal to enhance the readers’ understanding of how to maintain a healthy standard of living while improving performance in and out of school and supporting an overall sense of well-being.