By Janet Hunt
One of the current recommendations for consuming a healthful diet (see http://www.mypyramid.gov/) is to "make half your grains whole". While easy to remember, this advice represents a substantial change for roughly 4 out of 5 of us.
Why emphasize eating whole grains? In large part, this guidance is based on the scientific recommendation from the Institute of Medicine to consume 14 g dietary fiber for every 1000 Calories. For those in the 19 to 50 year age bracket, that's approximately 25 g for women and 38 g for men each day. Several studies have shown that although only 1 in 5 people commonly consume this much fiber, that higher fiber consumption is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.
Such research associations do not prove cause-and-effect. For example, people who consume high fiber diets may also have other health-promoting characteristics that influence heart disease. However, the evidence has been considered sufficient to provisionally recommend these high fiber intakes for good health.
Weaker scientific evidence exists for other possible benefits of a high-fiber diet, including improved gastrointestinal health, reduced cancer risk, improved control of blood sugar, and possibly increased satiety that could help maintain a healthy body weight.
More research is still needed to clarify the effects of dietary fiber on health, and this is complicated by the fact that dietary fiber comes in different forms, such as cellulose, hemicellulose and pectin, depending on the food. Nuts, legumes and whole grains are rich sources, and fruits and vegetables are good sources, of dietary fiber. The types of fiber differ between these general groups and even within groups such as whole grains. Different fiber types may have different health-related results. For instance, in one study, men with high blood cholesterol had their cholesterol reduced by 13% in 3 weeks by consuming additional oat bran, but not wheat bran. Until more is known, the general recommendation to make half your grains whole should be applied by using a variety of whole grains.
Of course, rather than eating more food, we should substitute whole grain products for more refined grain products. Consider the grains you eat, and how you can substitute. When ordering a sandwich, choose whole grain breads. Choose oatmeal or ready-to-eat cereals that are labeled as a source of whole grains. Try a bran muffin instead of a more refined blueberry muffin (or if you make blueberry muffins, try recipes that incorporate whole wheat or oats). Consider adding barley to vegetable soup or casseroles. When cooking, it is easy to substitute whole grain pastas for more refined pastas. Brown rice takes a bit more planning because the cooking time is longer, but provides a nice firm texture and flavor as a side dish or in recipes such as rice pudding with raisins. Did you know that baked tortilla chips are a whole grain? You can even count popcorn (just go easy on the butter)!
The USDA suggests choosing grain foods that have one of the following ingredients listed first: brown rice, bulgur, graham flour, oatmeal, whole-grain corn, whole oats, whole rye, whole wheat, or wild rice. It also warns that foods labeled with the words "multi-grain", "stone-ground", "100% wheat", "cracked wheat", "seven grain" or "bran" are usually not whole-grain products. However, most of these products will contribute more grain fiber than refined white bread. For instance, the fiber content of cracked wheat or wheat bread is about half-way between that of white bread and whole wheat bread. Using such a product for all of your bread choices would be another approach to making half your grains whole. And of course, you can also improve your fiber intake by choosing legumes, nuts, fruits (whole fruits rather than juices) and vegetables. If you would like to assess your diet, go to http://www.mypyramidtracker.gov/ where you can indicate the foods you eat and calculate your own nutrient intake, including total fiber intake.
Don't be discouraged…remember that the fiber recommendations were based on that 1 person out of every 5 with the highest amount of fiber in their diet. By definition, most of us are starting below that point. However, it is likely that small increases in fiber intake will provide some benefit. There are multiple ways that small changes can increase our fiber intake, including making half our grains whole.