You may have heard the term “refined grains” in a negative context, but do you know what it really means? Whole grains are made up of three parts: the germ (inner layer), endosperm (middle layer) and the bran (outer layer). The bran and the germ contain the most nutrients with concentrated amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. When grain is refined, both the germ and the bran are removed, leaving only the starchy and nutrient poor endosperm. While some manufacturers advertise their product as containing “enriched wheat flour” because they add iron and some B vitamins back in during processing, it is not a significant enough amount to equal the health benefits of whole grain.
Carbohydrates are important for energy and a balanced diet, however, the kind you eat makes a big difference to your metabolism. High quality carbohydrates rich in fiber, such as whole grains, slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream after every meal. As a result, they provide more energy and are more filling than refined grains, which are digested and absorbed into the blood stream very quickly. Blood sugar levels spike and then drop rapidly, leading to low energy and less meal satisfaction.
David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center describes refined carbohydrates and grain as “the single most harmful influence in the American diet today.” Extensive studies have proven that diets high in whole grains are more likely to reduce the risk of certain conditions, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease (see our infographic for more information). On the other hand, diets high in refined grains can lead to a host of health concerns, including:
- Metabolic Slowdown – Research has indicated that high-glycemic-index foods, such as refined grains, can prompt the body to shift nutrients into fat storage rather than energy. At best, this acts as a barrier to effective weight loss, and at worst, it can cause weight gain.
- Inflammation – Diets high in refined grains can cause the blood sugar to spike, building up glucose within the blood stream. This glucose then attaches itself to nearby proteins, leading to a chemical reaction called glycation, which aggravates inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and heart disease.
- GI Disorders – The lectins in any type of grain create fissures between cells in the digestive system and cause some inflammation. Removing the fiber, as in refined grains, leads to rapid-release carbohydrates, which can inhibit the body’s detoxification process resulting in high cholesterol.
- Food Allergies – Although it remains unclear why, wheat is a common trigger for food intolerance and allergies. Some researchers theorize that modern wheat varieties contain higher gluten content than they used to. The rise of Celiac disease, or intolerance for gluten, supports this theory.
Because refined grains are so common in our everyday foods, including: bread, pasta and cereal, the idea of cutting it out might seem impossible. However, whole grains ground into flour are a good 1:1 substitute for almost any recipe. While the flavor and texture is slightly coarser and nuttier, it is still delicious in its own right. Although the light texture and taste of refined grains may seem more desirable, the low nutritional value and potential health concerns keep any amount of flavor from being worth it. Incorporating unrefined grains into your everyday diet will result in a much healthier body and a potentially longer life.