The previous posts addressed what we eat too much of: sugar and trans fats. This post is about what we eat too little of: whole grains. Let’s look at wheat. We eat more wheat than any other grain, about 140 pounds annually per the USDA. In the 1880s a new method—the roller mill—was introduced for processing wheat. What the roller mill did more efficiently than the old stone mills was to remove the most nutritious part: the germ and bran. Germ and bran are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, lignans, antioxidants, and other live-giving phytonutrients. Modern bleached flour, lacking these natural nutrients, is a nutritional tragedy—it keeps a long time on the shelf, but it won’t sustain health.
For over a century nutritionists have decried the removal of natural nutrients from the nation’s flour and warned of dire consequences. At the start of WWII eight vitamins and minerals were suddenly added because of the poor health of inducted soldiers. There was no scientific evidence that a few synthetic supplements would replace the many nutrients removed; it was simply a wartime decision. My Dad was a true believer in whole grains; he made our breakfast, baked great bread, and taught us this couplet:
The whiter the bread,
The sooner you’re dead.
Scientists have found truth in this saying. Today there is a movement to salvage what was lost: the Department of Health in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans counseled returning to a diet of whole grains, asking for 3 servings daily. We can do better. Studies show that 80% of Americans consume less than one daily serving. Whole grains are protective of many chronic diseases, as shown in the following studies:
• Chronic diseases (Burkitt 1975)
• Cancer (Jacobs 1998; Slavin 2000; Fung 2005)
• Atherosclerosis (Malik 2007)
• Coronary heart disease and stroke (Liu, 1999; Truswell 2002; Jacobs 2004; Flight 2006; Mellen 2008)
• Weight gain and diabetes (Liu 2003; Venn 2004)
• All-cause mortality (Jacobs 2000; Steffen 2003)
Here is a rule that will help in selecting healthy foods made from whole grains. At first I used it to select a healthy breakfast cereal, but it can be applied to any cereal product, including chips, crackers and bakery items:
A warning about the reality of our food world: much of the stuff in the center of our grocery stores isn't healthy per this rule. Among breakfast cereals Old Fashioned Quaker Oats complies. Post Shredded Wheat biscuits are good too (but not the modern bite size ones coated with sugar). Later this week I'll check the breakfast cereal section of my grocery store and post a list of qualifying "healthy" cereals. It'll be short.
A caution about gluten intolerance, including Celiac disease: Celiac disease is a serious life-threatening illness that requires careful avoidance of grains with gluten, including wheat. Less than 1% of Americans have this condition but incidence has increased dramatically in the last decade. The cause of the disease and the reason for the sudden growth is unknown, but the modern diet is a likely factor. If you suspect you have this disease (it’s difficult to diagnose), consult your doctor.
Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.