Putting the “whole” back into grains. Saying no to “refined”!

Carbs: To eat or not to eat?: With the inevitable ebb and flow in the popularity of macronutrients, the average consumer is in a quandary as to whether he should consume carbs or not, and if there is really some credence to the gluten-free (no wheat, rye, oats and barley), mania that appears to have gripped the nation. In the 90’s when fats were demonized, carbohydrates were elevated to stardom with popular diet programs like Jenny Craig creating meals with at least 60% of their calories from carbohydrates.

However in the 2000’s, as consumers started flocking to gluten-free products, carbs may have fallen out of favor again as evidenced by data on the CDC website that showed statistically significant macronutrient trends : average carbohydrate intake decreased, and average protein intake increased between 1999-2000 and 07-08.(1)

Let’s review the facts on carbs and separate them from the flim flam that often sadly surrounds the topic of nutrition today. First off, let’s start with  a brief review of the functions of carbohydrates.


  1. Fuel source: Carbs are to your body what fuel is for your car. Neither can run without a primary energy source.  However choose “premium” over “regular” every time if you wish to get the most mileage out of your body, just like high quality premium grade gasoline, and try not to “overfill”.

    From bottom: salmon colored lentils, brown lentils, wild rice, yellow lentils, red rice and barley. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

    Premium carbs: From bottom center, clockwise: salmon colored lentils, brown lentils, wild rice, yellow lentils, red rice and barley. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

What are premium carbs?  Whole and unprocessed carbohydrates from whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, would be considered premium carbs. Whole grains are intact grains. After processing, they should retain the same proportion of bran, germ, and endosperm as that of the original grain to be considered whole grains (2)(3). Intact whole grains have an outer bran layer that is rich in insoluble fiber, and the inner germ layer packs a concentrated source of nutrients such as Vitamin E, phytonutrients and minerals to supply food for the growing sprout. Whole grains are significantly higher in dietary fiber, containing about 80 % more dietary fiber than refined grains (3).

Unfortunately, today’s grains are pulverized in a mill that strips the fiber and nutrient rich bran as well as the germ, leaving behind the starchy endosperm and a super fine white flour. This creates a greater surface area for your digestive enzymes to work on, leading to rapid breakdown of the available carbohydrate to sugar or glucose, your body’s primary energy currency, a subsequent large release of insulin from the pancreas, followed by a sugar “crash”, prompting hunger pangs later.

Today's refined grains are lacking the nutrient rich bran and germ. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

Today’s refined grains are lacking the nutrient rich bran and germ. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

Even though many grains are “enriched” by adding back several B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid) and iron, a key component, fiber is not added back to enriched grains. Thus, you could say that today we are eating the pale shadow of the hearty, wholesome grain that our ancestors ate.

It is these refined grains that have given carbs a bad rap. In our quest to avoid the undesirable carbs, some of us may have mistakenly shunned the healthful whole grains that are high in fiber, and virtually thrown out the baby with the bath water! The take away here is that the quality of carbs is key, just as the quality of fats counts as we saw on the previous posts on dietary fats.

From bottom center, clockwise: red rice, barley, whole grain bread, and brown rice.

From bottom center, clockwise: red rice, barley, whole grain bread, and brown rice. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE.

Despite the current dietary guidelines recommending that individuals consume at least one-half of all their grains as whole grains (i.e. 3 servings/day; 1 serving = 16 g), (4), dietary intake data indicates that the average whole grain intake is 1 serving/day, with the majority of Americans not meeting their whole grain daily intake recommendations (56).

2. Protein sparing action of carbs

The “protein sparing” effect of carbs implies that when carbs are consumed in adequate amounts, it enables the body to use protein for what it’s meant to be used- i.e as building blocks and to help repair and re-build cells, rather than for energy.  Only adequate dietary carbs (and to a lesser extent, dietary fat), can prevent the use of protein for energy, and it’s action in doing so is called the “protein sparing” effect of carbs. To ensure complete sparing of body protein and avoidance of ketosis requires 50-100 grams of carbs per day depending upon the individual.  On extreme low carb diets, large amounts of protein have to be consumed to ensure that body protein is not sacrificed for energy.

3. Source of fiber:

Fiber is the structural part of the plant and is derived exclusively from carbohydrate rich foods such as whole grains, legumes, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Although fiber is the part of the plant food that you cannot digest, it is ironically just as important as the part that you can.

Whole grain shredded wheat with 6 grams of fiber. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

Whole grain shredded wheat with 6 grams of fiber per serving. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

Ever notice that a bowl of oatmeal with some fruit seems to hold you longer than a giant bagel? The higher fiber content in this meal simply means that your body has to work harder at breaking down the carbs in those foods, causing a slower rise in sugar, less insulin from your pancreas, preventing hunger pangs later.   The refining process however strips the bagel of fiber, thus enabling your body to digest and absorb the carbs rapidly, leading to spikes in sugar, insulin, a subsequent sugar crash, setting off the all too familiar “snack-attack”.

There are numerous studies demonstrating the health benefits of fiber and whole grains. Epidemiological and clinical studies demonstrate that intake of dietary fiber and whole grain is inversely related to obesity, type two diabetes, possibly cancer and cardiovascular disease. (6),(7),(8),(9)

Now that we understand the benefits that whole grains and “premium” carbs bring to the table, let’s look at what it takes to actually get these products to our dining table, literally! Please read my next post: “Whole grains and fiber:Unraveling the puzzle”, to learn more.

Disclaimer: This blog is strictly for informational purposes and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult your Doctor or Registered Dietitian for recommendations tailored for your specific needs.

About Sangeeta Pradhan RD, CDE

Hi there! Welcome to my blog! If you are confused with all the conflicting messages you get bombarded with every day on carbs, fats, proteins, gluten and anything you can think of related to nutrition, look no further! The purpose of my blog is to cut through all this clutter, utilizing scientific, evidence based guidelines to help you, the consumer, navigate the complex, dietary landscape, and thus empower you to make informed decisions.
This entry was posted in Carbohydrates, Fiber and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Putting the “whole” back into grains. Saying no to “refined”!

  1. Pingback: Indian-style chickpeas with a tomato-onion sauce | Skinny on fats

  2. Pingback: Fiber spotlight: Lentil and black bean soup: gluten free, vegan | Skinny on fats

  3. Hurray. Excellent info on my favorite food group.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you! Just trying to cut through the clutter and confusion surrounding grains. So glad you found this helpful:)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Mary Rowen says:

    Thank you for this post. It’s refreshing to read something positive about carbs–the right ones anyway–for a change.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for your positive feedback, Mary. 😊. Clearly, not all carbs are created equal right?! Thank you so much for stopping by.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Aquileana says:

    Very interesting!… Thanks for providing this post as it can help us all become healthier when it comes to our way of eating!… Best wishes. Aquileana ⭐

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You are more than welcome. High fiber whole grains are a very important part of a healthy diet as the evidence shows. Thank you for visiting.😊


  9. Thanks sangeeta for stopping by my post , Nice meeting you , Look forward to reading your posts .Good times.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thanks and same here. Good times!😊

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Sangeeta. I just eat anything. Thank you for liking my poem “Is Anybody Listening?” Peace and Best Wishes. The Foureyed Poet.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Peace and good times to you too! Please stop by again. Have a wonderful week ahead:)


  13. AJ says:

    TBH I never knew what “whole” and “refined” really meant, and how different they were. Thanks for explaining food jargon!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. You are more than welcome. AJ! My job becomes all the more rewarding when fellow bloggers and readers like you offer great feedback like this! Many thanks for doing so😊!


  15. Wonderful, thanks for sharing! Yes, the impact of fiber on our gut microbiome is profound to say the least. I have discussed this in a couple more articles on my blog, besides this one that you responded to. Thank you so much for stopping and sharing the links above, really appreciate it.
    Here are the links:


  16. wendyalia says:

    Here’s another one, from CNN yesterday: Mediterranean diet scores another win for longevity by improving microbiome

    A new study published Monday in the BMJ journal Gut found that eating the Mediterranean diet for just one year altered the microbiome of elderly people in ways that improved brain function and would aid in longevity.


    After the year was over, those who had followed the Mediterranean diet saw beneficial changes to the microbiome in their digestive system. The loss of bacterial diversity was slowed, and the production of potentially harmful inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein and interleukin-17 were reduced.

    At the same time, there was a growth of beneficial bacteria linked to improved memory and brain function, the study said. The diet also appeared to boost “keystone” species, critical for a stable “gut ecosystem” and which also slowed signs of frailty, such as walking speed and hand grip strength.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. wendyalia says:

    Here’s the link to the BMJ article: Mediterranean diet intervention alters the gut microbiome in older people reducing frailty and improving health status: the NU-AGE 1-year dietary intervention across five European countries

    Abstract Results: Adherence to the diet was associated with specific microbiome alterations. Taxa enriched by adherence to the diet were positively associated with several markers of lower frailty and improved cognitive function, and negatively associated with inflammatory markers including C-reactive protein and interleukin-17. Analysis of the inferred microbial metabolite profiles indicated that the diet-modulated microbiome change was associated with an increase in short/branch chained fatty acid production and lower production of secondary bile acids, p-cresols, ethanol and carbon dioxide. Microbiome ecosystem network analysis showed that the bacterial taxa that responded positively to the MedDiet intervention occupy keystone interaction positions, whereas frailty-associated taxa are peripheral in the networks.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. wendyalia says:

    …and the stick to the carrots: Researchers find a western-style diet can impair brain function

    Consuming a western diet for as little as one week can subtly impair brain function and encourage slim and otherwise healthy young people to overeat, scientists claim.

    Researchers found that after seven days on a high fat, high added sugar diet, volunteers in their 20s scored worse on memory tests and found junk food more desirable immediately after they had finished a meal.

    The finding suggests that a western diet makes it harder for people to regulate their appetite, and points to disruption in a brain region called the hippocampus as the possible cause.


  19. Thank you so much, this is not surprising at all given the Mediterranean diet is chock-full of nutrients, antioxidants, resistant starches from legumes and whole grains for instance that act as “prebiotics” providing fuel for our probiotic bacteria. Incidentally probiotic bacteria modulate the production of a variety of beneficial neurotransmitters such as serotonin and GABA via the bi-directional gut-brain axis. Pretty fascinating stuff. I so appreciate your interest and input for this very important topic!!!


  20. Yes, the short chain fatty acids produced from bacterial fermentation of fiber in our diets, notably butyrate serve as fuel for colon cells, maintain the integrity of the GI tract, preventing for example, IBS and other gut related disorders but the acidic environment from the short chain fatty acids itself inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. Pretty cool!


  21. A western style diet can deplete the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor, a growth factor found primarily in the hippocampus that allows the growth and survival of new neurons and allows then to form strong robust connections with each other. These strong networks are the basis of memory formation and consolidation. The oxidative stress from a western style diet reduces BDNF, decreasing the formation of neural network thus affecting cognitive function as well as increasing risk of depression and dementia. A whole foods, plant based diet or Mediterranean style diet does not have this effect. I have explained this in this nutrition experts podcast and webinar that I am posting the links to-many thanks once again for your valuable contribution to this very important topic.


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