Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Real Deal With “Whole-Grain”


The number of products labeled “whole-grain” is blooming these days. People looking for healthier food are moving away from refined flour products and picking up “whole-grain” versions instead. But are they really better for you? And does it matter?

To answer those questions, we need to look at how our bodies process the foods we consume. While our bodies are generally quite efficient at absorbing nutrients and energy from the foods we eat, it’s not 100% efficient. Just because you put 2000 calories into your mouth doesn’t mean your body absorbs all 2000 calories. How many calories your body actually absorbs depends on many factors.

For example, the type, amount, and mix of foods you eat affect nutrient absorption. Certain foods are digested and converted to energy more readily while others can slow down the digestive process. The health of your digestive tract can also matter. When you have an intestinal infection or severe food poisoning, food can go through with little of it being absorbed. Even the microorganisms in your gut can affect how much you can extract from your food.

If you consider the ease with which your body digests and absorbs nutrients from various “whole-grain” products, it becomes pretty clear which ones can be healthier for you, and which ones are not much different from refined flour products. Digestion takes place in many phases. We commonly think of it starting in the mouth when we chew and mix saliva with the food. This helps break down the food into smaller particles, giving the rest of the digestive process more surface area to work on. However, if you think about it, we often “pre-digest” our foods by preparing and cooking them. For instance, a tough cut of meat can be made quite tender and easy to eat if tenderized or cooked long enough.

It’s a similar story with whole grains. Left completely intact, they are quite difficult for our body to digest since each grain has several fibrous outer layers protecting it. If you don’t chew and break apart the protective layers, the grains go through you relatively untouched. However, when whole grains are ground into whole-grain flour, the fiber-rich outer layers are broken up, exposing the readily-digested carbohydrates inside. White flour takes this “pre-digestion” a step further and removes all of the fibrous parts, leaving a fine powder of quickly-absorbed carbohydrates.

Since white flour is so refined, your body will readily digest and absorb it as if you are eating sugar. This is why your blood sugar can spike quickly when eating foods made primarily with white flour. Whole-grain flour is essentially the same as white flour but with the ground-up fibrous parts left in. The presence of fiber in the whole-grain flour may slow down absorption slightly but not to a great extent. So, your body will also rapidly absorb the carbohydrates and cause your blood sugar to spike. Neither option is as favorable as eating intact whole grains. These take longer to digest and therefore affect your blood sugar levels less quickly.

So, if you are watching your waistline or your blood sugar levels, consider buying foods that haven’t been “pre-digested” (i.e. processed) as much. Don’t let the marketing on the packaging fool you into thinking a product is healthier than it really is. Think about what the labels really mean, and when in doubt, choose foods that are closer to their natural form.

1 comment:

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