March 07, 2006

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Whole Grains

Have you noticed? Officialdom and the food processors are pushing whole grains. I mean really pushing them. Five or six years ago, ads for things like bagels and oatmeal crowed "full of healthy complex carbohydrates!" The buzzword for the supposedly post-Atkins era is "whole grain" - you know, 'cause they're good carbs. Sugary, highly processed cereal is being sold with "Contains whole grains!" Highly processed crackers full of bad fats are being pushed as "made with whole grains!"

I find the whole thing sourly funny. I've been a Junior Nutrition Buff since 1978 - long enough to remember when insisting on whole grains instead of refined, "enriched" garbage earned one the epithet "food faddist." For years and years and years the government and registered dieticians insisted that enriched grain products were just as good as whole grains. Menu plans for Joliffe's "Prudent Diet," Weight Watchers, or the like would list, "Bread, enriched or whole wheat," the implication being there was no difference.

Heck, back in the 1940s (a tad before my time,) the federal government, in the form of the FCC, tried to force Dr. Carleton Fredericks off the radio for having the temerity to state that whole wheat bread was more nutritious than white bread.

When the big Food Pyramid push started, we were told to eat 6-11 servings of grains a day. The word "whole" was not mentioned. Dutifully, we chowed down on pasta salad with fat free dressing. I don't have to tell you that a whole lot of us ended up fat, tired, and even sick as a result.

Then came the Low Carb Revolution, and millions of us discovered that cutting grains out entirely vastly improved our health. It was looking grim for the Food Pyramid and its government creators and backers, not to mention the manufacturers of grain-based food products, from bread to crackers to cold cereal. (Never forget that processed grain products are among the most profitable products in your grocery store. Just how much do you think the grain in that box of corn flakes is worth?)

All of a sudden, the epiphany! It wasn't just grains that were good, it was whole grains. Studies showed that people who ate whole grain were healthier than people who didn't! Whole grains were good carbs! That must mean that the more whole grains people eat, the healthier they'll be!

Do you detect a certain sarcasm in my tone? It's all so obviously flawed, and to my admittedly jaundiced eye, it all seems aimed at us - a way to get the low carb heretics back into the balanced diet fold.

Shall I spell it out? Refined grains - white flour and everything made from it - white rice, corn starch, and the like - are nutritional garbage. All the vitamins and minerals are removed. Since your body needs vitamins and minerals to process food, these "foods" actually go into your body and suck nutrition out.

(Yes, yes, they're "enriched." You know what that means? They take out over thirty nutrients we've identified so far, and put back five. Usually in synthetic form. Often in lesser quantity than they were present in the first place. "Enriched" is a joke. Worse, it's a lie.)

Refined grain products are also stripped of fiber. This makes them digest and absorb faster, increasing their blood sugar impact - their glycemic index. This is why squishy white bread has a glycemic index higher than an equivalent quantity of table sugar. So do most cold cereals. So refined grains not only suck vitamins and minerals out of your body, they also cause big blood sugar swings and massive insulin release, with all the medical problems that follow.

By comparison, whole grain products have their naturally-occurring vitamins, minerals, and fiber left in. While many of these products are highly processed, and have a high glycemic index, at least they're contributing some nutrients, rather than stripping them out of your body.

And some - but nowhere near all - of the less processed whole grain products have a lower glycemic index than refined grain products. Brown rice is gentler on blood sugar than white rice. Whole wheat pasta has a lower glycemic index than white pasta. Coarse-ground, dense whole grain bread absorbs slower than fluffy cheap white bread. This translates into lower insulin levels, and reduce risk of the diseases that come with hyperinsulinemia.

Is it any surprise that people who eat a less-harmful-to-somewhat nourishing food (depending on the individual's carbohydrate tolerance) are healthier than people who eat a highly damaging "food" that actually removes nutrients from the body? Extrapolating from this to "whole grains are essential to human health" and "the more whole grains you eat, the better" is a jump worthy of the Olympics.

I have to go back to my personal experience: Before I went low carb in 1995, I ate lots of whole grains. I hadn't bought a loaf of white bread in 18 years. I ate only whole grain cereals. I used only brown rice. I used whole grain flours for baking, and even for thickening gravy. And I got up to 190 pounds at 5'2", with borderline-high blood pressure, and nasty mood and energy swings. As far as my body is concerned, whole grains are not health food.

What about the vitamins and minerals in whole grains? I don't know of a one that can't be found in other, lower carb sources. Let's do a rundown:

B Vitamins - whole grains are a pretty good source of thiamin (B1), niacin (B3), pantothenate (B5) and pyrodoxine (B6). But checking the old standby, The Vitamin Bible, we find that:

* B1 is also supplied by peanuts, lean pork, "organic meats" (though I know of no reason why standard grocery store meats wouldn't be a source as well,) and "most vegetables."

* B3 is also supplied by liver, lean meat (pork is especially rich,) kidney (don't laugh - I like kidneys!), fish, eggs, white meat poultry, peanuts and avocados.

* B5 is also supplied by meat (it's the first source listed!), kidney, liver, heart, green vegetables, chicken, and nuts.

* B6 is also supplied by liver, kidney, cantaloupe, cabbage, eggs, peanuts, and walnuts.

For the other B vitamins, B2 and B12, whole grains aren't listed as a source. (Indeed, B12 is only found in animal foods.)

Looks like we can get plenty of B vitamins without whole grains.

Whole grains contain folic acid or folacin, but so do leafy vegetables, carrots, liver, egg yolks, cantaloupe, apricots, and avocados.

Whole grains are a source of vitamin E, an important antioxidant. But so are nuts and seeds, brussels sprouts, leafy greens, spinach (which last I checked was a leafy green) and eggs. So we're good.

How about minerals? Whole grains are a source of magnesium, but so are nuts and seeds, and green vegetables. Grains have some zinc, but meat, seafood, eggs, and seeds do too. They contribute some selenium, but so do seafood, kidney, liver, onions, broccoli, and tomatoes.

Whole grains contain fiber, of course. But are they an outstanding source? Hardly. Eat two slices of 7 grain bread, say in a turkey sandwich, and you'll get 3 grams of fiber, out of 24 grams of carbohydrate, and 131 calories.

If, instead, you cut up that turkey into a salad with 3 cups of shredded romaine, you'll get the same amount of fiber, but only 4.6 grams of total carb, and 24 calories. Throw in a half-a-cup of cherry tomatoes, and you'll add another gram of fiber, only 2.9 grams of total carb, and 13 calories. Looks like you can afford some berries for dessert, doesn't it? Add a cup of halved strawberries, for another 3 grams of fiber, 11.7 grams total carb, and a big 49 calories. Our low carb lunch has 7 grams of fiber, 19.2 grams total carb, 12.2 grams usable carb - and 45 fewer calories than the sandwich. (Of course, we haven't factored for salad dressing, but then the sandwich would have had some mayonnaise, now wouldn't it?)

One cup of cooked brown rice has 46 grams of carbohydrate, of which only 3 grams are fiber. It also has 218 calories, not an inconsiderable amount. A similar serving of "cauli-rice" - cauliflower that's shredded in your food processor and cooked lightly - has 5 grams of carbohydrate with 2 grams of fiber, and only 24 calories.

Low carb vegetables, fruits, and nuts and seeds are far superior to whole grains as sources of fiber. And low carb baked goods, should you care to eat them, are invariably fiber-enriched - the La Tortilla Factory low carb tortillas that are a staple around my house have 8 grams of fiber apiece!

There simply is no nutrient in whole grains that cannot be found in low carb sources - and not in weird, obscure low carb sources, but in the common foods that make up the bulk of our diet.

On the flip side, grains are among the most allergenic foods; many people are allergic to wheat and corn in particular. Gluten, the grain protein that makes bread dough stretchy, is implicated in a growing number of health problems. Some researchers feel that long-chain carbohydrate molecules, as found in grains, cause or exacerbate illnesses as various as ulcerative colitis, Crohn's Disease, and autism. (See Breaking The Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschall) Clearly, grains are not for everyone, insulin problems aside.

Too, there's the simple fact that grains were not a part of the human diet until the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. We all come from hunter-gatherer ancestors. It's hard to see how a food that all human beings did without for countless millennia can be essential.

I don't mean to imply that you shouldn't eat some whole grains if your body can tolerate the carbs, and you don't have allergies or gluten intolerance. I keep good, whole grain low carb bread in the freezer (from Natural Ovens of Manitowoc; best low carb bread I've found - and no, they don't pay me, though they've occasionally sent me free bread.) I mix some cooked wild rice or other grains with my cauli-rice on special occasions. I sometimes add a handful of barley to a pot of soup - barley has the lowest glycemic index of any grain, and adds a really nice texture and flavor. And along with those low carb tortillas, Wasa Fiber Rye and Finn Crisp have found a permanent place in my kitchen.

Just don't let the advertisers, food processors, and the dieticians and doctors who are still demonizing fat convince you that whole grains are essential to your health. They're not.

Posted by HoldTheToast at March 7, 2006 10:53 PM