Whole grains or ancient grains are making a comeback on grocery store shelves and are frequently being added to dishes in many restaurants. This is a dietary trend worth sticking around due to the rich nutrient profiles these grains provide. However there are many popular fad diets that eliminate grains altogether. As a dietitian I see red flags when diet plans eliminate entire food groups.
Whole grains can offer many health benefits and research shows many advantages with whole grain consumption. Whole grains have been shown to help manage weight and to help prevent certain diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancers, such as colon cancer and other chronic diseases.
What is a Whole Grain?
A whole grain contains all components of the original grain, the outer layer called the bran, the middle layer called the endosperm, and the innermost layer called the germ. Each component of a whole grain offers different nutrients and health benefits. A refined grain has one or more of these layers removed from processing.
Whole grains are a rich source of phytonutrients. The grains phytonutrients are found mostly in the outer layer of the grain, the bran. Phytonutrients are responsible for the rich antioxidant activity of certain foods. Whole grains contain an array of these beneficial components and some are unique to only whole grains.
Below is a list of several of the most studied phytonutrients in whole grains and their associated health benefits:
Avenanthramindes - a phenolic compound that is found in oats. Thought to have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Lignans – Some studies suggest that lignans may help with cardiovascular related diseases.
Phytosterols – These componets have been shown to help with lowering cholesterol levels. It is thought that they help to reduce dietary cholesterol absorption in the intestines.
Tocotrienols - A form of vitamin E. Studies have shown benefit with cancer prevention and cardiovascular diseases.
Whole grains also contain substances such as protease inhibitors, phytic acid, phenolics and saponins that have been shown to be helpful in prevention of certain types of cancers, such as colon cancer.
Whole grains also provide fermentable carbohydrates such as resistant starch and oligosaccharides. Oligosaccharides include oligofructose and inulin. Fermentable carbohydrates are beneficial for your gut microflora. They have been shown in human studies to increase beneficial bacteria in the gut, bifidobacteria, and decrease levels of harmful bacteria such as E.coli, clostridia and bacteroides.
Whole grains provide many vitamins and minerals. The smallest part of the grain is the germ. The germ is a rich source of proteins, vitamins and minerals. Below is a list of some of the most common nutrients found in whole grains.
B Vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, niacin)
Additional Benefits & Serving Recommendations
Boost Your Fiber Intake
Most Americans do not meet their daily fiber needs. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans the recommended fiber intake is 14 grams per 1000 calories, which is about 14-20 grams per day for children and around 25-35 grams per day for adults.
Aim for 6 Servings Per Day
The Dietary Guidelines recommend adults consume 6 servings of grains per day, with at least 50% coming from whole grains.
Are you Meeting Recommendations?
Despite the many health benefits of consuming adequate fiber the majority of Americans fail to meet this recommendation. According to NHANES data it is estimated that less than 2-7% of Americans meet daily fiber recommendations.
Fiber Health Benefits
Getting adequate fiber intake can help with maintaining a healthy weight. Dietary fiber also has been shown to be beneficial in disease prevention for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancers and other chronic diseases.
Improve Your Cholesterol Levels & Blood Glucose
Grains such as oats, rye and barley are rich sources of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber has been shown to help lower cholesterol levels and help with improving blood glucose levels.
With all these health benefits whole grains have to offer I would recommend adding them to your shopping carts and dinner plates! Below are several cooking tips to help get you started.
Many whole grains prior to cooking can be toasted to provide more of a nutty flavor. In a dry skillet heat on medium high and toast, stirring frequently for several minutes, then cook per package directions.
Add more flavor to your grains with spices and herbs. When you toast your grains add several of your favorite spices and herbs to the pan as well. Toasting the spices can also help to bring out their flavors. Here are several flavors to try:
**Add salt and pepper to taste at the end of cooking to adjust flavor. Remember, whole grains are naturally low in sodium so a little added salt may be necessary for flavor. Keep in mind that 1 tsp of table salt is about 2,300 mg of Sodium.
Whole Grains and Kidney Disease
Whole grains can be included in a kidney disease meal plan, despite whole grains containing slightly higher levels of potassium and phosphorous. For those with chronic kidney disease an overall healthy eating pattern is recommended and whole grains make for a great addition to your dinner plate.
You may or may not have to monitor potassium and phosphorous intake depending on your labs. If you have end stage renal disease and are monitoring your potassium and phosphorous levels, whole grains can still be incorporated into your diet with proper planning. Talk with your dietitian about planning a healthy meal plan specific for you.
Whole grains can offer many benefits for those with kidney disease including an array of nutrients such as: fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals and phytonutrients. Whole grains are naturally low in sodium and can be incorporated into many dishes. They are also a budget friendly item to help keep your wallet full.
It is known that phosphorous in whole grains is not well absorbed due to the presence of phytates that block its absorption. Just be sure to read package labels to look for added phosphorous which has a higher rate of absorption.
Here are several tips on how you can include whole grains in your diet if you have kidney disease:
Keep portion sizes to ½ cup to keep potassium and phosphorous levels low.
If purchasing pre-cooked or pre-packaged grains look at the sodium content. Whole grains are naturally low in sodium but packaged products may be higher in sodium depending on what the manufacturer added. Look for sodium less than 140 mg per serving or less than 5% of the daily value.
Make whole grains during your weekly meal prep to easily add to dishes throughout the busy work week.
If you have been told by your medical team or dietitian that you need to start monitoring your potassium intake know that many foods can be incorporated into your diet with proper planning.
Below is a list of the nutrient profiles of several whole grains to help you with meal planning.
Nutrient data is derived from the USDA Nutrient Database.
So should you be including whole grains in your diet?
The answer I tell all my clients is yes! With the many health benefits whole grains supply you would be missing out on many vitamins and minerals, increased dietary fiber intake, phytochemicals, and aiding in disease prevention. Whole grains can be a healthful and delicious addition to your daily meals so get cooking!
Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th ed. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/. Accessed February 17th, 2018.
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Kalantar-Zadeh K, Gutekunst L, Mehrotra R, et al. Understanding sources of dietary phosphorous in the treatment of patients with chronic kidney disease. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010;5:519-530.