Choose whole grain options

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The Mediterranean diet is gaining more and more traction due to its scientific backing of long-term studies and support from cardiologists, dietitians and numerous other health care professionals. One component of the Mediterranean way of eating is choosing whole grains. Fruits and vegetables make up the core of any healthy eating pattern, but grains are oftentimes forgotten in dietary considerations.

What if I told you that you could eat a healthy diet and not have to give up grains? After all, grains are America’s favorite food group. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard, “I don’t eat bread because bread makes you fat.” It all depends on the type of grain you are eating.

At the grocery store, there seem to be 52 different bread options including whole grain, honey wheat and enriched white bread, plus whole grain pasta, veggie pasta, low-carb wraps, sugary flavors of oatmeal, white rice, brown rice, jasmine rice, and even whole grain Pop-Tarts — sheesh!

Shopping for grains can be exhausting if you aren’t sure what you are looking for. Let’s start by debunking America’s long-held belief that “bread makes you fat.” According to the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating refined grains was shown to increase belly fat; however, consuming at least three servings of whole grains actually decreased belly fat. You might be thinking, “Great! But what is a refined grain and what is a whole grain?”

Every grain, whether it is wheat, barley, rye, rice, corn or any other type of grain, starts out as a “whole grain.” Wheat for example, grows in a field, and the wheat seed (known as a “kernel”) contains three edible parts. Each wheat kernel contains a bran, an endosperm and a germ. The bran layer contains fiber, B vitamins and antioxidants.

The endosperm is the largest layer and is the plant’s food supply containing starchy carbohydrates, proteins and a small bit of vitamins and minerals. When you eat “refined,” “enriched” or “white” grains such as white bread, pasta and white rice, you are only eating the endosperm.

Finally, there is the germ. The germ contains B vitamins, proteins and vitamins and minerals. The American Dietary Guidelines recommend at least half of the grains we eat should be whole grains.

So what is the big deal with whole grains? Why does it matter? Whole grains are certainly less processed than enriched grains. That processing removes the fiber and key nutrients. Fiber is what I call “the forgotten nutrient.” When you eat white bread, white pasta, white rice or any grain that has been more processed or “refined,” you are getting all starch and no fiber. Fiber is key in maintaining a healthy weight as it helps to keep you fuller for longer, aids in blood pressure management, aids in blood sugar management and helps keep the digestive tract healthy. In fact, Americans need between 25g and 35g of fiber each day. Whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, in addition to fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds.

Examples of whole grains include 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat bread, 100% whole wheat or whole grain pasta, brown rice, oats and oatmeal, as well as quinoa and popcorn. When choosing your whole grains, look for “100% whole” on the label. If a label just says wheat, and even if the bread is brown, that does not mean it is a whole grain. It must say 100% whole grain or 100% whole wheat. Typically, whole grain breads, pastas and brown rice are the same cost as their white counterpart.

When it comes to pastas, I suggest always looking for the whole grain and not veggie pasta. When you compare a box of “veggie pasta” to whole grain pasta, the “veggie” pasta is made of vegetable starches, contains little to no fiber and is more expensive.

What about gluten? This is a question I am asked often. Gluten is a natural protein found in wheat, rye, triticale and barley. It has always been around, but misinformation about gluten has created anxiety about consuming gluten when only 1% of the entire population actually has celiac disease. Gluten should not steer you away from choosing healthy grains, but that is a column for another month.

Unless you have celiac disease, there is no reason that the average healthy person should avoid gluten.

For more information on grains, visit www.wholegrainscouncil.org. In the meantime, look for the Whole Grains Council stamp of approve to be sure you are eating whole grains.