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Refined Grains: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Important Points:

  • whole grains
  • refined grains
  • Western dietary pattern
  • diabetes
  • obesity

Refined Grains: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Flour is all around us and a temptation at every meal. Breakfast toast, bagels, cereal, and pancakes fill our tables. Lunch revolves around sandwiches, wraps, pasta and pizza. Refined grains have been vilified as one of the leadings causes of ill health. Is there any truth to this? Should we toss all refined grain products off our tables? We will have an in-depth look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of refined flour to give you a better understanding of the goodies on your plate.

What are Refined Grains?

Refined grain is the term used to refer to grains that are not whole, because they are missing one or more of their three key parts (bran, germ, or endosperm). White flour and white rice are refined grains, for instance, because both have had their bran and germ removed, leaving only the endosperm. Refining a grain removes about a quarter of the protein in a grain and half to two thirds or more of a score of nutrients, leaving the grain a mere shadow of its original self.

Further refining includes mixing, bleaching, and brominating; additionally, thiamin, riboflavinniacin, and iron are often added back in to nutritionally enrich the product. Because the added nutrients represent a fraction of the nutrients removed, refined grains are considered nutritionally inferior to whole grains. However, for some grains the removal of fiber coupled with fine grinding results in a slightly higher availability of grain energy for use by the body.

Grain refining led to disastrous and widespread nutritional problems, like the deficiency diseases pelagra and beri-beri. In response, many governments recommended or required that refined grains be “enriched.”

The Good

The federal government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that half your daily grain intake be from high-fiber whole-grain sources, foods like brown rice, oatmeal and whole-wheat bread. Nutritionists often exhort people to choose whole grains over refined ones whenever they can.

But according to one leading nutrition researcher, Julie Miller Jones, a professor emeritus at St. Catherine University, we shouldn’t be so eager to throw out refined grains altogether. Refined grains do have some benefits — namely, nutrients added to refined flours.

Since folic acid was added to bread, cereal and other grains in 1999, the rate of newborns with neural tube defects — a known consequence of folic acid deficiency — has decreased 46%. Additionally, important nutrients like copper and iron are more easily absorbed when eaten with refined grains. Whole grains are healthy because they’re so high in fiber, which Americans don’t get enough of, but that fiber also fast-tracks food through the digestive system, absorbing nutrients along the way.

The Bad

As our national appetite for flour has inched up, so has the incidence of diet-related ills, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Coincidence? Many nutrition experts don’t think so. When they weigh the evidence linking food choices and disease, they see the white, dusty fingerprints of flour everywhere.

Flour started out as an ingenious fix to a vexing problem. Grass seeds were plentiful, but the tough outer shell (the husk) made the seeds difficult to chew and digest. Early humans outsmarted the seeds by grinding them between stones, crushing the outer layers to get at the goodness inside. The result — a coarse powder — was the first whole-grain flour.

The downside was spoilage. Crushing the germ released its oils, which quickly turned rancid when exposed to air. With the advent of industrial milling in the late 1800s, machines began filtering out the germ and pulverized the remaining endosperm into a fine, white powder that lasted on the shelf for months. And so all-purpose white flour was born — along with a host of health problems.

Beneath their rigid architecture, whole-kernel grains conceal an array of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. But when machines pulverize kernels into flour, even whole-grain flour, what’s left behind is a starchy powder capable of wreaking havoc on the body.

The Ugly

Overconsuming flour can lead to a number of problems in the body, including:

  • Food Allergies/Intolerances. Gluten intolerance is a term that has become synonymous with the current generation. Wheat is one of the biggest dietary triggers of food allergies and intolerances. While the exact reason is unclear, many experts blame the higher gluten content of modern wheat varieties
  • Blood-Sugar Spikes. The difference between a whole-kernel grain and a processed grain all boils down to the glycemic index, which is how quickly the body turns food into fuel, or glucose. Foods made with wheat flour are particularly damaging. A carbohydrate in wheat, called amylopectin A, is more easily converted to blood sugar than just about any other carbohydrate. Two slices of bread made with whole-wheat flour raise blood sugar higher than six teaspoons of table sugar and higher than many candy bars.
  • Food Cravings.  One of the biggest changes in modern wheat is that it contains a modified form of gliadin, a protein found in wheat gluten. Gliadin releases a feel-good effect in the brain by morphing into a substance that crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds onto the brain’s opiate receptors and makes you want to eat more.
  • Caloric Overload. A refined grain packs more calories than a whole-kernel grain because it is more concentrated, and foods that are high in grains also tend to be high in sugar and industrialized fats. These foods contribute largely to obesity and the diabetes epidemic.
  • Metabolic Slowdown. Research shows that the body may shift nutrients into fat storage and away from muscle burning in the presence of high-glycemic-index foods. In 2004, Ludwig and his colleagues at Harvard conducted a study, published in the journal Lancet, in which they fed rats diets with identical nutrients, except for the type of starch. By the end of the study, rats in both groups weighed roughly the same, but those eating a high-glycemic diet had 71 percent more fat than the low-glycemic-index group.
  • Inflammation. A diet high in grains stokes inflammation. When blood sugar spikes, glucose builds up in the blood significantly. When glucose drifts in the blood, it attaches itself to nearby proteins resulting in a chemical reaction called glycation, a pro-inflammatory process that plays a role in a host of inflammatory diseases.
  • GI Disorders. Studies show that the lectins in grains inflame the lining of the gut and create fissures between cells. Also, when whole-kernel grains are refined, 80 percent of the fiber is lost, and gut health suffers. Additionally, fiber helps sweep the gut of debris and supports the body’s critically important elimination and detoxification processes, which also play a role in keeping high cholesterol and inflammation at bay.
  • Acid-Alkaline Imbalance. The body has an elaborate system of checks and balances to keep its pH level at a steady 7.4. A diet high in acidic foods, such as grains, forces the body to pull calcium from the bones to keep things on an even keel. When researchers looked at how the diets of more than 500 women affected their bone density, they found that a diet high in refined grains, among other nutrient-poor foods, was linked to bone loss. A highly acidic diet also chips away at our cellular vitality and immunity in ways that can make us vulnerable to chronic disease. Grains are the only plant foods that generate acidic byproducts. Wheat, in particular, is among the most potent sources of sulfuric acid, a powerful substance that quickly overcomes the neutralizing effects of alkaline bases.

The Bottom Line….

Grains are not essential, and there is no nutrient in there that you can’t get from other foods.

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Refined grains, insulin resistance, and Type 2 Diabetes

Important Points:

  • Refined grains
  • Whole grains
  • Blood sugar
  • Glycemic index

Refined grains, insulin resistance, and Type 2 Diabetes

Flour is hard to avoid during meal times. Breakfast options mainly consist of toast, bagels, cereal, and pancakes. Convenient lunches are sandwiches, wraps, pasta or pizza. Dinner might come with its own temptations too. As a result, the average American now eats 10 servings of refined grains each day. What effect do these refined grains have on your health? Do consuming refined grains predispose you to Type 2 Diabetes? In this article, we will have a look at factors that could put you at risk.

1. What Is the Difference Between Whole Grains and Refined Grains?

While whole grains are very high in dietary fiber, refined grains are much lower in fiber and micronutrients.

Whole grains consist of three main parts:

  1. Bran: The hard outer layer, containing fiber, minerals and antioxidants.
  2. Germ: The nutrient-rich core, containing carbs, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plant compounds.
  3. Endosperm: The middle layer, containing mostly carbs and small amounts of protein.

The bran and germ are the most nutritious parts of whole grains.They contain high amounts of many nutrients, such as fiber, B vitamins, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese and selenium.

During the refining process, the bran and germ are removed, along with all the nutrients they contain.Removing the nutrients from the grain has implications. On the upside, it makes things like bread doughy and spongy — textures we like and have come to crave. On the downside, the nutritional value of the food is severely compromised, and these stripped grain products actually deplete our body’s reserves of important vitamins and minerals.

The nutrient content of refined flour is determined by the ‘extraction rate’ (the proportion of the grain retained after milling). Refined flour produced in Australia is milled to an extraction rate of 78-80% resulting in a higher nutrient content (prior to fortification) than flour produced in countries using a lower extraction rate (e.g. 73-75% in the USA).

This leaves almost no fiber, vitamins, or minerals in the refined grains. What’s left is rapidly digested starch with small amounts of protein.

2. What are the effects of consuming refined grains on our health?

  • Blood sugar spikes: Because flour is easily digestible, it causes our blood sugar to spike, which could lead to a rise in insulin. The pancreas has to crank out a lot of insulin to metabolize the glucose in flour-rich foods, which can set the body up for insulin resistance, diabetes and bodywide inflammation.

Refined grains have a higher glycemic index, which is how quickly the body turns food into fuel, or glucose.  A carbohydrate in wheat, called amylopectin A, is more easily converted to blood sugar than most other carbohydrates. Two slices of bread made with whole-wheat flour could raise blood sugar higher than six teaspoons of table sugar and higher than many candy bars.

  • : Obesity is the leading factor in Insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, and other chronic diseases. Eating too many refined carbs may be one of the main culprits. As they are low in fiber and digested quickly, eating refined carbs can cause major swings in blood sugar levels and contribute to overeating.
  • As we have discussed above, foods high on the glycemic index promote short-term fullness, lasting about one hour. On the other hand, foods that are low on the glycemic index promote a sustained feeling of fullness, which lasts about two to three. Blood sugar levels drop about an hour or two after eating a meal high in refined carbs. This promotes hunger and stimulates parts of the brain associated with reward and craving.
  • These signals make you crave more food, and are known to cause overeating. This constant eating leads to obesity, a pre-diabetic state, and eventual diabetes.
  • Slower Metabolism: Research shows that the body may shift nutrients into fat storage and away from muscle burning in the presence of high-glycemic-index foods. In 2004, Ludwig and his colleagues at Harvard conducted a study, published in the journal Lancet, in which they fed rats diets with identical nutrients, except for the type of starch. By the end of the study, rats in both groups weighed roughly the same, but those eating a high-glycemic diet had 71 percent more fat than the low-glycemic-index group.
  • Inflammation:  A diet high in grains stokes inflammation. When blood sugar spikes, glucose builds up in the blood. When glucose drifts in the blood, it could attach itself to nearby proteins. The result is a chemical reaction called glycation, a pro-inflammatory process that plays a role in a host of inflammatory diseases — everything from Type 2 diabetes, to arthritis to heart disease.
  • GI Disorders:  Studies show that the lectins in grains inflame the lining of the gut and create fissures between cells. Also, when whole-kernel grains are refined, 80 percent of the fiber is lost, and gut health suffers. Without the fiber, you end up with rapid-release carbs in these grains, which is a bad thing for the gut. Fiber helps sweep the gut of debris and supports the body’s critically important elimination and detoxification processes, which also play a role in keeping high cholesterol and inflammation at bay.
  • Food Allergies/Intolerances:  Wheat, in particular, is one of the biggest dietary triggers of food allergies and intolerances. While the exact reason is unclear, many experts blame the higher gluten content of modern wheat varieties. A type of protein found in many grains, including wheat, gluten gives dough elasticity, trapping air bubbles and creating a soft texture. Because soft is considered desirable, wheat today is bred to have more gluten than ever before.
  • Acid-Alkaline Imbalance:  The body has an elaborate system of checks and balances to keep its pH level at a steady 7.4. A diet high in acidic foods, such as grains, forces the body to pull calcium from the bones to keep things on an even keel. When researchers looked at how the diets of more than 500 women affected their bone density, they found that a diet high in refined grains, among other nutrient-poor foods, was linked to bone loss. A highly acidic diet also chips away at our cellular vitality and immunity in ways that can make us vulnerable to chronic disease. Grains are the only plant foods that generate acidic byproducts. Wheat, in particular, is among the most potent sources of sulfuric acid, a powerful substance that quickly overcomes the neutralizing effects of alkaline bases.

3. What is the healthiest form of grains?

Whole grains deliver fiber, healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, plant enzymes and hundreds of phytochemicals, and for those seeking a dense source of carbohydrate energy, they can be a healthy choice — but only if they are unrefined and minimally processed. Here are a few steps toward upgrading your own grain options:

  • Choose whole-kernel grains when possible. 
  • Try sprouted grains. 
  • While baking, replace part of the flour with nut or seed meals. 
  • Stick with truly whole-grain flours. 
  • Don’t overdose on gluten-free foods. 
  • Try going flour-free. 
  • Consider a grain sabbatical. 

4. Are refined grains a culprit in Insulin resistance and Type 2 Diabetes?

When ground into flours, most grains act like sugar in the body, triggering weight gain, inflammation, and blood-sugar imbalances. Studies show that a high consumption of refined carbs is linked with insulin resistance and high blood sugar levels, the main symptoms of type 2 diabetes.

Refined carbs also increase blood triglyceride levels, a risk factor for both heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It is therefore advisable to keep our refined grain consumption at a minimum, and if we do indulge, check that what we are having is fortified.