Food & Fitness After 50: Avoiding “Refined” Grains? Think Again

I originally wrote this post for the Grain Foods Foundation and I thought the information was valuable for my readers. I hope you think so, too.

Whole grainsMost likely you’ve heard someone say, “I’ve cut all refined and processed foods, including white bread, from my diet.” Considering the definition of refined means “free from impurities, fastidious, or cultivated,” it’s curious that refined grains have taken on a negative connotation. What if removing refined grains was not necessary for good health and could contribute to having fewer healthful nutrients in your diet?

Dr. Glenn Gaesser, Professor of Exercise Science and Health Promotion and Director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center, Arizona State University, wanted to find out why refined grains are viewed as unhealthy by so many people, including recommendations from the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC). In a recent paper, Professor Gaesser uncovered several noteworthy facts and posed several questions:

  • Recommendations to increase whole grain intake to reduce risk of many chronic diseases, including obesity, is clear. “There is rock solid evidence for the benefits of eating whole grains,” says Dr. Gaesser, yet only 2% to 7% of Americans meet the recommendation to consume at least one-half of grains from whole grains.
  • While the DGAC recommends consuming half of grains from whole grains and reducing the intake of refined grains, the committee only reviewed evidence that looked at dietary patterns, not refined grains specifically.
  • An “unhealthy dietary pattern” as defined in the research studies evaluated by the DGAC included red and processed meat, sugar-laden foods and drinks, French fries, full-fat dairy foods, and refined grains. What if refined grains are guilty by association with the other foods in this unhealthful dietary pattern?
  • Refined grains include not only staple foods, like bread, rice, cereal, and pasta, but also cookies, cakes, doughnuts, brownies, muffins, sweet rolls, and even pizza! Are all refined grains created equal when it comes to health effects?

Untangling the evidence

Infographic-Dont-Refrain-Eat-Your-Refined-Grains-e1554487212408Looking at multiple studies, called meta-analyses, that included 32 publications with 24 distinct groups of people, refined grain intake was not linked to an increase risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, or obesity. In fact, one meta-analysis reported that higher consumption of refined grain was associated with a 5% lower risk of death from any cause. But you wouldn’t know that from the headlines blaming refined grains on all the world’s ills.

The “eat-only-whole-grains” message has become predominant in nutrition reporting. It is typical to pit foods against each other, to crown one food as good and healthful and another food as bad and unhealthy. However, the evidence to support that dichotomy for whole and refined grains doesn’t hold up upon further scrutiny. Dr. Gaesser’s investigation found that eating up to six or seven serving of refined grains does not increase the risk for many of the chronic disease affecting Americans.

An unintended consequence

While refined grains have been demonized, it is useful to remember that refined grains contribute more than just energy (calories) to our diets. Refined grains are enriched or fortified (see sidebar for definitions) with B-vitamins and iron. Eating refined grains can alleviate shortfalls of thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and iron.  Folic acid, a B-vitamin needed for healthy nerve and spinal cord development for babies, is found in refined grains and these grains are the largest contributor of folic acid in the diet. Refined grains also contribute dietary fiber, a nutrient sorely lacking in the diets of most Americans. “Grain foods contribute about 55% of all fiber in the American diet and about 40% of fiber intake comes from refined grains,” says Professor Gaesser.

Putting it all together

What does this research mean for you? First, it is helpful to realize that you should know your stuff before you cut. There is no reason to cut refined grains from your diet.  Enjoying up to seven servings a day will contribute to nutrient intakes of several vitamins and minerals, and dietary fiber, and will not up your risk of disease.

It is also useful to think about refined grains in two distinct categories:

  • Staple grains, such as bread, rolls, rice, and pasta
  • Indulgent grains, such as cakes, cookies, pies, doughnuts, and other sweet desserts

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Eat more grains from the staple category and less from the indulgent group. The sweet, indulgent group of grain foods contain higher levels of fat and sugar than the staple grains.

Continue to include whole grains in your diet, but there is no need to eliminate the refined, staple grains.

DEFINITIONS

Grain+anatomyWhole grains: A grain containing all three parts of the grain: the bran, germ, and the endosperm. Whole grains contain fiber, antioxidants, the mineral magnesium, B vitamins, and plant compounds called phytonutrients that have many healthful properties.

Enriched grains: Enrichment is the process of replacing nutrients that were removed when the whole grain was processed. Enriched grains have B-vitamins niacin, riboflavin, and thiamin, and the mineral iron added back to the grain at levels similar to the original whole grain. About 95% of white flour is enriched; therefore breads, pastas, cereals, rolls, tortillas, and pretzels made from white flour are enriched with nutrients.

Fortified grains: Fortification is the addition of nutrients to a food where they are not naturally occurring. Milk is fortified with vitamin D to help the naturally occurring calcium be better absorbed. Grains are fortified with the B-vitamin folic acid at two to three times the levels found in the whole grain to help reduce birth defects.

Refined grains: Grains that have been processed to remove the bran. In the U.S. the terms refined, enriched, and fortified grains are used interchangeably.

The Grain Foods Foundation has website devoted to Healthy Aging, so check it out!

Copyright © 2019 [Christine Rosenbloom]. All Rights Reserved.

Food & Fitness After 50: Busting Myths on Fibers

bread-and-grainsI put the “s” on the end of fiber for a reason. While you have probably heard for the need to increase fiber intake, Dr. Julie Miller Jones, a professor and researcher from St. Paul, Minnesota, says, “We should talk about fibers, like we talk about vitamins, because they do different things for our health.” I heard Dr. Miller Jones at a recent conference discussing carbohydrate myths. (The session was sponsored by the Grain Foods Foundation, but I was not asked, nor was I compensated to write this post).

One of the myths she addressed is that fruit and vegetables provide all the fiber anyone needs. Look at these three breakfast choices and guess which contains the most fiber: keep in mind that women over age 50 should aim for 25 grams of fiber a day, and men 38 grams.
#1
12-ounces of Bolthouse Farms Strawberry-Banana Smoothie

#2
Multigrain bagel thin with peanut butter and a small apple with the skin

#3
½ cup Fiber One Cereal, ½ cup Cheerios, ¾ cup milk, and ¼ cup of blueberries

Breakfast #1 has only 2.1 grams of fiber, #2 contains 8.6 grams of fiber, and #3 has 19.5 grams of fiber. The biggest contributor to fiber in the third breakfast is the high-fiber breakfast cereal, not the berries (and, is my usual morning breakfast).

The stats of fiber intake are sad! The average intake in the U.S. is 17 grams with only 5% meeting adequate intake for fiber. But, let’s get back to that fibers comment made by Dr. Miller Jones.

Fiber is defined as the fibrous material or roughage in foods that can’t be broken down in the stomach or intestines, so it passes through the body. Fiber can aid in regular bowel movements, can bind with cholesterol to speed its removal, and help keep blood sugar in check. Fiber comes in basically two types:

Insoluble fiber is the kind found in cereals and other grains and acts like a broom to sweep clean the gastro-intestinal tract.
Soluble fiber is found in fruits and vegetables and helps regulate blood sugar and cholesterol.

Most foods have a bit of both and we need both, but if you want to tackle the fiber shortage, choose grains. It takes a lot of fruits and veggies to get to the recommended intake of fibers. To illustrate, remember that Fiber One cereal? A half cup has 14 grams of fiber. Compare to 4.4 grams in a medium apple with the skin or 3.8 grams in a half cup of blackberries or a half cup of stewed prunes.

Here is a link to a list of high fiber foods.

Label claims can lead you think a food is higher in fiber than it is. If a food product claims to be a “good source” of fiber, that means it has 2.5 grams of fiber per serving. An “excellent” source means a serving has at least 5 grams.

So, don’t ignore the contribution that grains make to your fiber intake; I’ll be the first to admit that high fiber cereals like Fiber One or All-Bran aren’t the tastiest, but mixed with another cereal, used as a topping on yogurt, or crushed like crackers in soup can give you big benefits. People who eat more fiber have less chronic diseases, like heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and have lower body weights (for the complete run down on fiber, check out this position paper on the health benefits of fibers.)

Dr. Chris Rosenbloom, along with co-author Dr. Bob Murray, are the authors of Food & Fitness After 50, a guide to helping you eat well, move well, and be well at 50, 60, 70, and beyond. The paperback on Kindle edition are available at Amazon.