Entire populations have enjoyed the benefits of whole grains for centuries. They're extremely versatile, relatively inexpensive and easy to cook. They're also loaded with protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
But for them to be of any benefit to us, they have to be whole, non processed and stripped of the fiber and nutrients that they possess.
Whole grains are a source of complex carbohydrates, which provide fuel for the body's vital energy needs. As long as they're in their whole form, they provide energy in a time-release fashion to ensure a steady blood sugar level.
Endurance athletes and bodybuilders often "stoke up" on complex carbohydrates - to fill up without filling out.
Contrary to popular belief, high-carbohydrate foods are not fattening. Carbs have less than half the calories found in fat.
Among the nutrients they provide, they contain B vitamins, vitamin E, folate, calcium, selenium, iron, magnesium and zinc.
Grains also contain phytochemicals, important compounds that work with the body to fight disease. The main phytochemicals in whole grains are beta-glucans, lignin, tocotrienols, phytoestrogens and phytic acid.
A large Harvard study compared women who had 2.5 servings of whole grain foods a day with women who ate less than half a serving daily.
The first group were 1/3 to 1/2 less likely to die of heart disease than the second group.
Researchers concluded that eating a daily bowl of whole grain breakfast cereal (with about 5 g. of fiber) cuts your chances of heart disease by about 1/3.
Some of the benefits of whole grains are due to their abundance of antioxidants, fiber and cholesterol-reducing plant sterols.
An Italian research on the subject found that eating lots of whole grain foods (at least 3-5 servings per day) lowers your cancer risk as much as 50% for stomach and colon cancer, 40% for ovarian, 20% for prostate and pancreatic cancer, and 10% for breast cancer.
Whole grains are rich in protease inhibitors, compounds that may help squelch cancer cells by interfering with the activity of enzymes called proteases that promote cancer.
Also researches show that a substance created by the fermentation of dietary fiber in the intestines, called sodium butyrate, may act as a colon cancer suppressor contributing to the benefits of whole grains.
There is also evidence that dietary fiber may play a role in decreasing the circulating estrogens (estradiol and estrone) that can raise the risk of breast cancer.
Also not to be overlooked is the amount of antioxidants contained in whole grains which can help prevent damage to the DNA of cells, thus preventing cancer from forming in the first place.
A study carried out at the University of Minnesota on 36,000 women, found that three daily servings of whole grain foods cut the risk of type 2 diabetes by 21%.
In the Harvard study, they found that to reduce the risk of developing diabetes by 1/3, all women had to do was to eat the equivalent of a bowl of oatmeal cereal and two pieces of whole wheat bread daily.
Researchers agree that there's more than one factor in whole grains that keep blood sugar and insulin under control. Whole grains, for example, are rich in compounds called lignans, which may protect against diabetes independently of their effects on blood sugar.
Also they improve the body's sensitivity to insulin, the hormone that manages blood sugar levels. In one study of 978 men and women, the higher their intake of whole grains, the greater their insulin sensitivity, which translates into better blood sugar control.
Read about Low GI Foods and Glycemic Index of whole grains, which help you make the most of the benefits of whole grains.
The Nurses' Health Study from Harvard School of Public Health looked at more than 74,000 women and found that those who ate the most whole grains were a whopping 49% less likely to gain weight over a 12-year period than those who ate the least.
How can whole grains do that? Whole grains are filling, in large part because of their hefty fiber content (fiber contains no calories, because it can't be digested). So it'll make you feel less hungry, less likely to overeat and, as a consequence, less likely to gain weight.
They're gentler on your blood sugar than their refined counterparts. Steadier blood sugar means steadier weight.
Also, when you're eating more fiber-rich foods, you'll automatically eat less of other, more fattening foods.
There's no doubt now that whole grain foods, with their high-fiber content, are the best medicine for keeping stools soft and bulky.
Refining grains has a major downside - it removes a great deal of fiber. This is a serious problem because most people don't eat anywhere close to the 20 to 35 g. of fiber per day that experts recommend.
Technically, fiber is not a nutrient since it doesn't dissolve in the digestive tract and it never enters the bloodstream and yet it is indispensable. And not just because it promotes regularity.
The fermentation of dietary fiber by the intestinal flora produces three main end products: short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), various gasses and energy. The SCFAs - acetic, proprionic and butyric - have many important physiological functions and all contribute to the health benefits of whole grains.
Proprionate and acetate are transported directly to the liver and used for energy production, while butyrate provides an important energy source for the cells that line the colon. In fact, butyrate is the preferred source for energy metabolism in the colon.
Butyrate production may also be responsible for the anticancer activity we mentioned earlier.
There are two main types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. All plants have some of both kinds, but some plants have more soluble or more insoluble fiber. One type of fiber is not better than the other. They perform different tasks and both are essential to good health, that's why you need to eat a variety of fiber-rich foods to enjoy the health benefits of whole grains.
The insoluble type of fiber doesn't dissolve in water, but it absorbs water providing bulk to the stools, causing them to become larger, firmer and easier to pass. This helps the intestine to move them along much quicker making them less likely to damage cells and kick off the cancer process.
The reason fiber is sometimes called "roughage" is because it's actually "rough". This is good, because this kind of fiber acts like a natural broom, actually cleaning up the encrusted walls of the intestine, preventing build up and keeping the walls of the colon free of stale feces, and stimulating local circulation in the process.
The most familiar source of insoluble fiber is wheat and rice, but it's also found in other whole grain foods, some vegetables and fruit skins.
This is the type of fiber that dissolves in water and is broken down into a jelly-like mass which, in contrast to the rough stuff we looked at above, is soft and smooth providing a protective coat that prevents harmful substances from doing damage to the intestine walls and, at the same time, it helps to shift hardened fecal matter in the lining of the colon wall.
It's the type of fiber that helps reduce cholesterol, lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.
How does fiber reduce cholesterol? It actually attracts cholesterol, pulls it along with it and escorts it out of the body. It also slows down the rate that glucose enters the blood and so is believed to be especially important for diabetics.
Good sources of soluble fiber are oat bran, peas and dried beans, barley, apples, oranges and carrots.
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