The Whole Darn Grain

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.

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Reader Comments (22)

Just checked my cereal cupboard and realized non of my cereals comply, even the 2 cereals I thought were good for me. One cereal, Quaker Oatmeal Squares, has 5g dietary fiber and 2g soluble fiber. The back says it has "46 grams of whole grains" per serving, I'm guessing from the oatmeal. But it has 9g sugar per serving. What do you think about that? I just don't quite understand.

I know you're going to address what cereals comply in the next post, so I might be jumping ahead. Can't wait for the next post. Thanks for sharing your wealth of information. I feel like I've learned a lot already.

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJen

Jen, you're right on top of this. Comparing natural fiber to sugar (in grams) takes a little experience with the Nutrition Facts label. Usually a total fiber (grams) is given and the soluble or insoluble fiber is mentioned. I just use the total number. (The body uses both kinds of fiber.) This focus on fiber ensures that whole grains are used in the cereal.

In my thinking, it would be best if NO sugar were added to cereals so people could sweeten as they feel best, perhaps with fruit, or a natural sweetener like honey. In the cereal you mentioned, the sugar is nearly double the fiber— nine grams of sugar is a little over two teaspoons. As the AHA recommends just six teaspoons daily for women, this cereal takes a big chunk of the AHA goal. Other cereals are worse, I wouldn't throw away your cereal but we all want what is most healthy. Best to you, Skip

January 17, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I can't wait to see your list of "approved" cereals. I go back and forth between oatmeal and ready made cereals with almond milk. I usually prefer cold, crunchy cereal first thing in the morning, so looking forward to seeing your options. Hopefully cheerios makes it!

I've been meal planning on my blog in 2011 and after reading your blog, I am even more motivated to stick with it and remove even more meat. Thank you!

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTera

I'm curious to see if any Kashi cereal makes the list? I love their stuff and they claim to be "healthy". I don't have any in my cupboard right now otherwise I'd check!

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarissa Noe

I'd be interested in whether or not you will address the over-consumption of wheat in America. I can eat wheat, but while I'm pregnant or nursing, my body doesn't like it--rashes, mood swings, etc. In my studies at becoming wheat-free for those times, I've found a lot of people who are not strictly allergic to wheat, but who find that going off of it for periods of time improves their well-being significantly. From what I've read, it seems to be attributed to the fact that wheat is essentially all that we eat. (That and corn.) Nearly all of our breads, crackers, cereals, are wheat based; add to that the wheat components that are added to a huge amount of processed food, and you've got a lot of wheat coursing through your body every day, not much variety.
If you have any experience with them, I'd love to hear more conversation about the vast quantity of other grains (or seeds) out there--quinoa, millet, teff, amaranth, etc.
Great site, by the way!

January 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commentertiff

i will check out GrapeNuts when i go to the kitchen.

thank you for sharing this information. i just sent this site info. to eight children and their spouses this morning. i am excited to improve. ccc

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercristie

I made some 100% w.w. bread yesterday. I like my recipe. It does use some vital wheat gluten...which I don't know anything about. Do you? The bread is light and most and doesn't crumble.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNancy O

Having Celiac, I had to skip over much of this post. :(

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ. Daniel Rollins

I found your blog from inchmark. I am excited to follow your research and helpful information. I couldn't find another place to contact you so I thought I would share in this comment a book I am currently reading about exercise and the brain. It is called "Spark" by John J. Ratey I wondered if you had read this book as part of your research and study. Thanks for the great blog.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea

I am loving your blog-I have been trying to eat healthier, and your blog is really helping me feel like I can! I just checked my Whole Wheat bread (not home made). I was curious to see it's ratio as well. It has the same amount of fiber as sugar. eek. I guess I better start making it from scratch!

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauralee

I found your blog through your daughter's mention of it, and I'm so glad you took the plunge and started to share all that you've learned. Nutrition is one of those things I know I should understand better, but have a hard time enjoying learning about. I'm thrilled that you've done the reading and are presenting what you've learned in simple language with guides that can easily be applied.

I'm a little scared to go check my cereal shelf.

January 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterT. Crockett

Loving these simple, easy tips to creating a better, healthy you. I was buying the white, Italian bread at Trader Joe's for my sandwiches, but switched to the wheat today as I am concerned about the prevalence of diabetes in my family

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmy K. at The Boom Club

Man this is a hard one! I love me some sugar cereal. :) I'm glad cheerios are okay... thay are right? (I think i read it right) Cheerios and banans are one of my favorites... so yay! I will need to get rid of my instant fruit and cream oatmeal and just add fresh fruit to my regular oats... Man I've been lazy! haha
I seriously love this blog and it is such a good way to get a track... I'm sharing this with everyone I know!

January 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRandi

I love shredded wheat biscuits! YUM!!! Great post and I am loving the format of your blog and all of the information. Girl, you are inspiring me to eat better and thank you for the sweet comment today!

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered

Great blog! Thank you for sharing your knowledge. I'm always looking for ways to stay motivated in eating healthy. I haven't done too much research but I have read and tried "Eat to Live" by Joel Fuhrman. I would be interested in getting a 'second opinion'
I'll look forward to your tips and recipes. Thanks!

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStacy

Stacy, thanks for your support. Hope you'll share with your friends. I haven't read Fuhrman's "Eat to Live" but I have read "Fasting and Eating for Health." Fuhrman believes in eating natural foods which are rich in nutrients and low in calories. I like his view that if you eat this way, you can eat a healthy amount and, if overweight, find a permanent healthy weight without starving yourself. Fuhrman is one of the good guys, in my view. Best, Skip

January 21, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

I have been reading your blog since you started and I love it. I made my husband read this post and I hope this made me win the kids cereal debate. Thank you

January 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterImene

J. Daniel Rollins - but we can enjoy quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, teff, brown rice, flax, and oats (if they aren't cross contaminated). Delicious whole grains!

January 22, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjessica

Love love love the blog Skip! Thanks for all your's funny how we get obsessed with finding the perfect diet, when in fact, the Creator of our bodies has already given us one! I'm in!!!!

January 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMomlark

Debbie, thanks. Tell your thousands of friends to drop in too. Skip

January 27, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

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