If you eat a diet that features popular foods like bread, pasta, and rice, the chances are, you eat a variety of grains every single day. And you’re not alone. These foods are the most widely eaten in the world because they grow easily in many climates. But while many people rely on grains to keep bellies full and meal tasty, fewer realize the true impact these grains have on our bodies and overall health.
Grains are best described as small, dry seeds that grow on plants called cereals. The most common varieties are rice, wheat, corn, oats, and barley, and they make up the bulk of carbohydrates (commonly known as carbs) found on our plates at mealtimes. When eaten as they come, they’re called whole grains, but in today’s society, whole grains are typically refined before hitting the supermarket shelf. This process, in which the nutritious bran and germ are removed from grains, improves the texture and increases the shelf life of foods. And this is why you’re more likely to find white rice, white pasta and white bread (all processed) in your local grocery store than their unrefined 100% wholegrain versions.
Refined versus Wholegrains
Researchers have long been aware that refining grains strip them of most of their nutrients. Back in 1999, food scientists identified that the process by which a wholegrain is turned into a refined grain not only removes much needed dietary fiber, it also strips the food of B vitamins and minerals, such as iron, zinc, and calcium. But even though the scientific consensus is that unrefined whole grains are more nutritious than refined ones, unrefined grains still pose a health challenge.
Because all grains, even unprocessed whole grains, are primarily carbohydrates, and the building blocks of all carbohydrates are… sugar molecules.
Take rice for example: in some cases, carbohydrates account for 80% of raw white rice and 75% of raw unprocessed wild rice. While there’s a lot of carbohydrate in both types of rice, the presence of fiber in unprocessed varieties delays the breakdown of carbohydrates to sugar inside the body. But with refined rice and other grains, the absence of fiber means their carbohydrates are easily accessible in the body and are quickly turned into sugar. The outcome? Eating refined grain can quickly spike blood sugar levels and encourages the body to produce insulin – the hormone that removes sugar from the blood and turns it into fat.
A 2011 review of 23 clinical studies showed foods that rapidly raise blood sugar levels to cause cravings, overeating, weight gain, and obesity. And other research has found that these foods increase a person’s potential risk of developing heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
But unrefined grains are also problematic because even though the fiber they contain slows down their impact on blood sugar, as high carbohydrate foods, they are still turned into sugar in the body. That means blood sugar spikes and insulin spikes and this can be so damaging to your health.
Why grains can upset blood sugar?
While grain-free, low carbohydrate diets are synonymous with certain weight loss programs, like the Atkins or Dukan diet, research shows that a diet that’s low in carbohydrates like grains doesn’t just benefit your waistline, it can also improve heart and brain health. A study this year looked specifically at the impact of carbohydrates on the health of Middle Eastern populations and found a lower risk of metabolic syndrome – a group of conditions that increase a person’s risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke – among those who ate low carbohydrate diets. More specifically, low carbohydrate consumption was found to improve blood sugar levels, blood triglycerides (fats that raise heart disease risk), blood pressure and weight.
And if you consider the role of insulin in the body, this finding soon makes sense
Insulin’s main function is to clear sugar from the blood and into cells for use, but its secondary function is to turn the sugar that isn’t used for energy into fat – fat that’s laid under the skin (leading to obesity) and fat that’s laid in and around vital organs – two factors that expert bodies say can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
This year, guidelines named high carbohydrate diets as a risk factor for a condition called insulin resistance. In this situation, the body’s cells don’t respond properly to the hormone insulin, resulting in a build-up of the sugar molecule glucose in the blood. Excess insulin is then produced by the pancreas in an attempt to counteract the glucose build-up, but this abundance of insulin in the blood leads to a whole host of health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, weight gain, and diabetes.
To grain or not to grain?
So is the key to ultimate health to eat a grain-free diet? This is still a point of a lot of debate among many doctors, but for us, the answer is clear – do without them.
There is an abundance of evidence implicating grains – both unhealthy refined ones and ‘healthier’ wholegrains – in the development of conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Sure, whole grains are sources of fiber, vitamins, like B vitamins, and minerals, including selenium, potassium, and magnesium; however, if you can’t separate the bad from the good in a certain food, then that food is bad for you. Cut grains out of your diet completely and watch how quickly you start to look and feel better. Sure, there will be a withdrawal. Coming off grains is very difficult. But if you get through that period, the other side is a far healthier life with increased wellbeing and an improvement or even reversal of serious conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.