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What’s All the Fuss about Whole Grains?

Bob's Red Mill Brown Rice Flour and Sorghum Flour
Big Business profits when you eat whole grains.

Everywhere I turn, someone is counseling another to eat more whole grains. It's getting to be like a tape recording that just won't shut off.

Where did this idea come from?

Who decided it was good for us to eat whole grains?

Back before the obesity epidemic, no one walked around saying this, so where did this idea first start?

Who profits when we eat whole grains?

The other day, I was looking over some of the meal ideas posted to a thread at the Celiac Disease Support Group I sometimes frequent at the Delphi Forum. This thread has been ongoing for a couple of years now, so I decided to start at the beginning.

In that thread, a licensed nutritionist had an uncontrollable urge to speak up and remind the posters that they needed to be eating whole grains every day!

She realized that they were only posting their dinner meals, and admitted that her remarks might not be applicable because of that, but she still found it difficult to read their menus and gluten-free food ideas without speaking her mind.

Her feisty attitude got me thinking:

Where did the push to consume lots of whole grains actually come from?

It wasn’t that the posted meals were unhealthy. In fact, they were extremely nutrient-dense.

The folks at the Celiac Support Forum eat tons of fresh fruits and vegetables. They grill a lot of their meats, use a minimum of oils and fats, and have a flair for seasoning their food with a nice variety of herbs and spices.

Gluten-free baked goods are kept to a minimum, although the forum members do enjoy eating a special gluten-free treat now and then.

Does a healthy gluten-free diet have to include lots of
baked goods and whole grains?

Since I lean toward the consistent results I get from following recipes and measurements, I find those who can cook by intuition simply fascinating.

But, the nutritionist felt compelled to zero in on what she felt the posters might be missing in their already-healthy diets. That caused me to feel more than just a little bit uncomfortable.

Pinterest Image: Whole grain bread, popcorn, and whole grain cereal

Advice from Harvard University Concerning Whole Grains

This woman isn't the only health expert shoving whole grains at us. When I read the woman’s post, I didn’t have any idea who originally decided that we need to eat whole grains.

All I knew was that Harvard University’s Healthy Eating Plate recommended eating them daily, supposedly based on their research to date. In fact, they clearly advised people to “reserve a quarter of your plate for whole grains, not just any grains.”

This recommendation translates into 2 or 3 servings per day of whole grains, exactly what the Old Weight Watcher’s Exchange Program used to advise us to eat.

However, if you follow that recommendation explicitly, there would be no room in your diet for potatoes, corn, peas, beans, or rice, unless you placed those healthy choices in your miscellaneous calorie allowance for the week.

For that reason, the advice from Harvard University served to stoke the fires of confusion that were burning within even more.

The Role of the Whole Grains Council

Did you know that there is a Whole Grains Council?

I didn’t.

Not until I stumbled upon their website the morning that I wrote this post. They are a consumer advocacy group that came about due to an April 2002 meeting held in San Diego among concerned:
  • grain millers
  • manufacturers
  • chefs
  • and scientists
At that meeting, they decided to join efforts in promoting the increased consumption of whole grains. 

To do that, they launched a public whole-grains marketing campaign in 2003 designed to encourage others to join their cause.

That cause has grown from its 9 original food industry sponsors to over 300 members today, and includes:
  • bakeries
  • bread makers
  • frozen bread dough companies
  • grain manufacturers
  • flour companies
  • tortilla manufacturers
  • tortilla chip companies
  • rice manufacturers
  • yeast manufacturers
  • pasta companies
  • cracker companies
  • popcorn manufacturers
  • waffle makers
  • pizza crust companies
  • baking mix manufacturers
  • major fast food chains
  • major and minor grocery stores
  • gluten-free manufacturers
  • cookie companies
  • grain advisory boards and councils
  • kitchen appliance retailers
  • Mexican food companies
  • snack food companies
  • jam companies
  • cereal manufacturers
  • dessert companies
Do you see a pattern here?

Every single member of this council has a strong financial interest in convincing you that you need to consume whole grains every day. There are no medical authorities or even dietitians on that list!

Harvard’s logic says eating whole grains can:
  • protect you against future disease states
  • lower cholesterol levels
  • improve blood glucose control
  • supply you with essential vitamins and minerals
It says that wheat and other whole grains are necessary for a nutrient-rich diet.

But it was actually the Whole Grains Council who was so concerned with how the average American eats less than one serving per day of whole grains. In addition, 40 percent of Americans do not eat any whole grains at all.

That wasn't good for profits, so the Whole Grains Council started the entire whole-grain movement.

What is a Whole Grain?

According to the Whole Grains Council, a whole grain contains 100 percent of the original grain kernel. This means the bran and germ, as well as the endosperm (or the inside of the grain seed) must still be present.

If the grain has been processed, it still must contain approximately the same balance of nutrients as found in the original grain. But keep in mind that this definition comes from the manufacturers themselves.

This is not how a whole grain was originally defined when I was growing up. True whole grains could not be ground. They could only be minimally processed.

Bowls of Brown Rice and Quinoa
Some whole grains are brown rice and quinoa.
Real whole grains have not been ground into flour yet.

This new definition is where fortification came into the game. Manufacturers could tear the whole grain apart, as long as they added back the main nutrients that were in the original whole grain.

Seeds and legumes are not whole grains, so that eliminates:
  • flax seeds and flaxmeal
  • chia seed
  • sunflower seeds
  • sunflower seed meal
  • beans
  • chickpea flour
  • soybean flour
  • white bean flour
Most of the above healthy ingredients are popular among low-carb and gluten-free bakers. These beans, seeds, and flours would have to be consumed in addition to the 3 servings per day minimum that’s recommended by Harvard for whole-grain consumption.

The council’s whole grain listing includes buckwheat, which isn’t a grain. Buckwheat is a grass that’s safe for those with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease if picked and processed before it goes to seed. However it violates the council's own whole grain definition.

The council's listing for whole grains include, but is not limited to:
  • wheat and triticale
  • brown, colored, or wild rice
  • corn (including cornmeal and popcorn)
  • oatmeal
  • barley
  • teff
  • sorghum
  • quinoa
  • millet
  • amaranth
  • buckwheat
This list is especially interesting, given that most of the grains on the list are considered naturally gluten free, so the Whole Grains Council also has a deep financial interest in moving a large portion of the population toward a gluten-free diet.

There are other grasses that they also consider a whole grain like Montina, and they include pseudo-grains such as amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat in their list due to their nutritional profile being similar to other cereal grains.

However, further investigation into these superior nutritional claims for wheat and other grans didn't pan out when I did a personal study on Vitamin B. Grains are lower in Vitamin B than protein foods and produce are.

How the Old Weight Watchers Exchange Program Differs

As I looked into the idea of why whole grains are necessary on a daily basis, the health benefits seem to focus on fiber and nutrient density of grains.

There isn’t anything in a whole grain that you can’t get from a diet that contains adequate protein sources and is rich in fruits and vegetables, except for a whole grain’s incomplete protein profile.

The only exception to that would be quinoa, which contains all of the eight essential amino acids needed to be comparable to meat, eggs, and dairy products. This is super important information for those on vegetarian and vegan diets.

This isn’t to say that whole grains aren’t an essential part of a healthy, nutrient-dense diet.

After all, Dr. Atkins was putting his normal weight patients on a moderate-carb diet that included whole grains, provided their blood glucose control could handle the carbs.

But the current tendency to push everyone toward eating lots of whole grains on a daily basis or something bad might happen to you is highly suspect.

When weight loss is a necessary step in moving toward better health, you have to cut the carbs to some degree. It is the only macronutrient you have to play with to lower calories.

Weight Watchers Exchanges originally came from the diabetic exchange program being used at that time to treat diabetics. It was created to be, and advertised as, a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet. Has that honestly changed?

I don't think so.

The body doesn’t need to be flooded with more than 2 or 3 servings of assorted starches and grains every day, unless you're at maintenance and need to consume more calories.

For those who have insulin resistance or other metabolic disorders, that could be extremely damaging and maybe even too much. While whole grains are a better choice than their stripped, heavily processed counterpart:
  • beans
  • seeds
  • potatoes
  • starchy vegetables
are also an important part of a healthy diet.

In addition, those with damaged villi or inflammation due to celiac disease or food sensitivities can't always handle whole grains. I know I can't. Eating any of the grains on the above list make me violently ill.

Since there isn’t room in a well-balanced weight-loss diet for the amount of whole grains that are currently being recommended (3 to 6 servings daily, and a minimum of 2 servings for children), I think I’ll just continue to get my fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants from all of the low-calorie fruits and vegetables I eat and, thereby, avoid all of the intestinal distress and discomfort I have when I eat whole grains.


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