Whole Grains are Super Foods for our Health
The many health benefits of whole grains are why I often write about this subject.
The data continues to mount on the health benefits of these humble foods. This is because they are not only good for human health, but also for the health of our planet.
I recently watched the TV series “The Chosen.” When someone asked Jesus what his favorite food was, Jesus said, bread.
While it is fashionable now in some health circles to denigrate bread, bread is also my favorite food. Especially bread made from freshly milled whole grains. The health benefits of whole grains are so pronounced—and the taste so delicious—I’ll take a slice of hardy whole-grain bread over just about anything.
The Staff of Life
Bread is the most common way people in many countries eat grains. Rightly called the “Staff of life,” whole grain bread contains more nutrients by weight than meat, milk, potatoes, fruits, or vegetables.
Bread is more than just food. The phrase “bread and butter,” is used to describe a person’s main source of work. Bread and dough are synonymous with money. These colloquialisms show how bread is essential to life, one of the most basic foods and something we often rely on for nutrition.
“Give us, this day, our daily bread,” from the Lord’s prayer, could be taken literally.
A Food in Early Egypt
Egyptians are believed to be responsible for introducing the process of leavening around 4,000 B.C.
Bread, in fact, was central to their economy. Wages were often literally paid in dough.
The Bible talks about the matzoh the Israelites ate as they fled Egypt. Because the dough had no time to rise, it baked on their backs as they escaped into the desert.
Made From Many Different Grains
Bread can be made from various cereals, grains, and legumes. Wheat is the oldest cereal known to humans, and the most common.
The Ethiopians make a flat bread called injera from a nutritious, high-protein grain called teff. Injera is sour, spongy bread, which the Ethiopians and Eritreans eat with most meals. I love to mix teff into my bread and cookie recipes.
Barley, another highly nutritious grain, grows well in cold climates. Barley is used in Finland to make ohrarieska, a traditional staple type of cracker-bread, and in Norway to make a flat-bread called hardanger lefse.
Other grains used include millet, oats, and rye, as well as nuts and acorns.
However, wheat’s pleasant flavor, long shelf-life, and unique gluten-forming characteristics make it the most popular grain for bread-making. Unfortunately, due to modern agricultural practices of breeding wheat, many early wheat varieties, like emmer and spelt, are virtually unknown today.
But What About Gluten?
Wheat and some other grains contain gluten. Gluten can cause side effects for certain people, such as those suffering from celiac disease. But most people have eaten gluten most of their lives—with no adverse reaction. Most of us don’t need to be gluten-free for optimal nutritional health.
According to Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D., senior scientist at MIT, many problems associated with gluten are actually caused by the pesticides and herbicides used to grow grains, in particular glyphosate.
However, negative media attention on wheat and gluten has caused many people to avoid organic whole-grains that contain gluten. They’ve been misled into believing that whole grain bread has no place in a healthful diet, though there’s little published research to support this claim.
In fact, the findings also suggested that non-celiac individuals who avoid gluten may actually increase their risk of heart disease.
If you’re interested in this topic, I recommend reading Harvard’s School of Public Health helpful review on gluten: “Gluten: Benefit or Harm to the Body?”
Health Benefits of Whole Grains
Gluten questions aside, there are many health benefits of whole grains. In general, optimal nutrition involves eating fresh whole foods (including whole grains and whole sugars), eating a balanced and diverse diet, of which at least 80% should be plant-based, eating wild foods, and eating slowly, sitting down, in a relaxed setting, preferably with friends or family.
Whole-grain foods provide valuable nutrients often lacking in the American diet. These include:
- Dietary fiber
- B vitamins
- Vitamin E
Full of Healthful Nutrients
Carotenoids are another group of compounds in whole grains. These include lutein, zeaxanthin, β-cryptoxanthin, β-carotene, and α-carotene. They’re commonly concentrated in the bran or germ.
Micronutrients in whole grains include folate and vitamin B-6, polyphenols, and antioxidant compounds, along with prebiotics such as inulin, oligosaccharides, and immune modulators like β-glucan.
These nutrients present in whole grains work synergistically to lower oxidative stress, inflammation, and pathogen load.
Thus, it’s the sum of the parts of these grains that likely contribute to the health benefits of whole grains.
Health Benefits of Whole Grains: Good for Your Heart
A 2008 meta-analysis found that cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks, strokes, and the need for a procedure to bypass or open a clogged artery, was 21% less likely in people who ate 2.5 or more servings of whole-grain foods a day compared with those who ate fewer than 2 servings a week.
At the same time, low whole-grain intake may be one of the most important risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
In another recent study, published in 2022, researchers who examined cardiovascular disease mortality in China during 1990-2019 found that men and older adults who ate fewer whole grains were were at higher risk of dying from heart disease.
Health Benefits of Whole Grains: Reduced Death From Cancer
If more people switched to whole grains, thousands of lives could be saved each year, not just by reducing heart disease, but also by reducing deaths from cancer.
A meta-analysis of 12 studies involving nearly 800,000 people found that eating 70 grams of whole grains a day – the equivalent of one large bowl of porridge – lowered the risk of all-cause death by 22% and death from cancer by 20%.
This international team of researchers recommended that people choose foods that are high in whole grain ingredients—such as bran, oatmeal, and quinoa—while reducing consumption of unhealthy refined carbohydrates.
According to another study, published in 2016, one of the largest health benefits people could make is to shift from low or no intake of whole grains to an intake of just one serving (that is, 16 grams a day.) A small individual lifestyle improvement like this would have a relatively large effect across whole populations.
Making Changes: Add Whole Grains to Your Diet
Changing your eating habits won’t happen overnight. However, I believe that every time you make a shift towards better health, even a small one, you start to feel healthier, happier, more energetic, and more focused.
Consuming a variety of whole grains—alongside a mostly plant-based diet—is the healthiest way to eat. Strive to have whole grains and other plants make up at least 80% of your diet.
The rest, between 15 and 20%, should be a diversity of animal-related foods: these can include fermented dairy (from goat, sheep, and cows), fresh free-range eggs, wild-caught fish, as well as small amounts of very high-quality meat for people who need it.
I, myself, am a pesca-flexa-vegetarian, as I explained in this blog post.
I’ve written about the health benefits of whole grains before and I’ll be writing more about this in the future. Check back next week for an article on why I think you should mill your own flour and bake your own bread.
I’d also love to hear from you. Do you love bread or loathe it? Are you convinced about the health benefits of whole grains or are you sticking to refined flours? Thank you very much. Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.
Donald R. Yance is the founder of the Mederi Center. A Clinical Master Herbalist and Certified Nutritionist, Donnie is renowned for his extraordinary knowledge and deep understanding of the healing properties of plants and nutrition, as well as of epigenetics, laboratory medicine, oncologic pathology, and molecular oncology. He is a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild, National Association of Nutrition Professionals, Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine, and the Society for Integrative Oncology.
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