New study looks at refined grains — and may cause confusion

Don’t desert your high-fiber choices, because they have proven — and needed — health benefits.

You may have heard about a new study just published in a scientific journal that said that eating refined grains is not associated with negative health consequences like obesity, heart disease and type 2 diabetes or mortality. This study compiled and evaluated results from 32 published studies that looked at dietary patterns and their relationship to diseases.

This was quite a sweeping conclusion and a surprising revelation to me, as a registered dietitian nutritionist, and here’s why.

Research in the study of whole grains shows people whose diets are higher in fiber and whole grains have less chronic disease and less premature death. So how do we make sense of these new conclusions? Can we just eat as many refined grains now as we want? And what are refined grains, anyway?

The answer lies somewhere in between. Let me give you some perspective as you consider the new study conclusions and determine what, if any, changes you should make in your eating habits for optimal health. Nutrition is a science, and rarely is science black and white.

It is well accepted in the scientific community that whole grains are one of the healthiest foods we can eat, and generally speaking, have been considered superior to refined grains. Population studies of eating patterns show that higher intakes of whole grains protect against many diseases, like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and they even help lower inflammation. People who eat at least three servings of whole grains a day have lower body weights and lower amounts of body fat, as well as lower waist circumference numbers, an accurate marker for chronic diseases. These are the amazing health benefits we can receive if we eat whole grains.

Fiber is essential to keeping the microbiota (colony of bacteria) in our guts healthy, and it also supports a healthy immune system. Whole grains contain all three parts of the grain: the endosperm, germ and bran — the outer fibrous part of the wheat kernel. In whole grains, the fiber stays intact and whole, but in refined grain products, such as white flour, the fiber is removed in the milling process. Certain vitamins and minerals are also destroyed in the milling process.

Products called “enriched” contain vitamins and minerals that have been added to increase their nutrient content. Examples are folic acid, some B vitamins and oftentimes iron. Fiber is not added back, so all refined products are devoid of fiber. Are enriched grain products better than eating a chocolate chip cookie? Absolutely. How much and how often you eat refined grain products vs. how many whole grain products make up your daily eating pattern will determine the health benefits — as well as the important nutrients — you get.

Health organizations suggest we eat less refined grains by swapping them out for whole grains. Refined grains like pastries, donuts, cake are poor choices, while enriched breads and cereals are better refined choices. It makes sense to separate these two camps and eat fewer of the high calorie, nutrient-poor refined grains and try to eat half of our grain choices as whole grains to increase our fiber intake and get the documented health benefits they provide.

More randomized, controlled studies are obviously needed, and this conclusion may be jumping the gun. Don’t desert your high-fiber choices, because they have proven — and needed — health benefits.

Kim Larson is a registered dietitian nutritionist, certified health and wellness coach and founder of Total Health. Visit www.totalhealthrd.com or www.facebook.com/totalhealthnutrition for more.

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