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5 reasons why grains aren’t the enemy

Accredited Dietitian Tim Cassettari explains why grains are a vital part of a healthy diet.

If you have heard about the low-carb, gluten-free or Paleo diet, you have likely heard the idea that removing grains from our diet is beneficial for our health.

While we do benefit from limiting our intake of refined grain foods, such as white bread, refined cereals, white rice, biscuits, cakes and pastries, this is not a good reason for removing grain foods altogether.

Here are five reasons why.

Fibrous grains are often very nutrient rich

Fibrous grains, which include wholemeal breads, high-fibre cereals, wholemeal pasta, oats and barley, are minimally processed plant foods that provide not only fibre, but magnesium, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin E, resistant starch and an abundance of different antioxidants too.

While we often think of grains as empty calories, this is far from true. Grains are the leading contributor of seven key nutrients in the Australian diet today.

Science tells us that fibrous grains promote good health

Yes, among other things, grains do contain carbohydrates, and a high carbohydrate intake can impair weight loss and lower good cholesterol, increasing heart disease risk.

But research time and again tells us that people who eat fibrous grain foods:

  • Have better heart health
  • Have better metabolic health
  • Have better intestinal health
  • Are better at managing their weight

Clearly, there is much more to fibrous grains than just carbohydrates, and not all carbohydrates are bad for our health.

“By remembering that grains are neither good nor bad, and by focusing instead on eating the healthiest amounts and types of grains, we enrich our diet with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.”

These health benefits cannot be made up easily from eating other foods

The main health benefits associated with fibrous grains are actually significantly greater than the associations seen with even that of fibrous fruits and vegetables. This has been shown consistently for a lower risk of:

  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Bowel cancer
  • Weight gain

While fruits and vegetables are of course important, it is most difficult to achieve optimal health with just the fibre from fruits and vegetables alone.

Most of us are not eating enough fibre-rich grains

There is no need for grains to be the foundation of our diet: just 40-50 g of fibre-rich grains a day is commonly thought to be enough for these significant health benefits to develop over time. To put this into perspective, this amount is only slightly more than 1 slice of wholemeal bread, or 1 bowl of oats. We don’t need to eat a lot.

The issue though is that most of us are falling short of even this small amount, and many people are now also reducing their intake further due to the popularity of overly restrictive low-grain fad diets.

Good nutrition is about moderation and balance, not the total exclusion of food groups or nutrients

The difficulty today seems to be in knowing how to separate quick fix fad diets from good, evidenced-based nutrition.

Perhaps it is worth remembering, then, that while fad diets usually sell an idea of all or nothing, good nutrition promotes the concepts of moderation and balance, with an understanding of the range in which the healthiest balance actually lies.

By remembering that grains are neither good nor bad, and by focusing instead on eating the healthiest amounts and types of grains, we enrich our diet with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, and promote better health, too.

In nutrition, very rarely does the healthiest balance exist only at zero.

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