#186 Are Grains Healthy? 4 Things to Know About Grains

Are Grains Healthy?

While books and websites have demonized grains in every form, the scientific literature does not support this belief.  Indeed, in study after study, grains can be healthy provided they are real whole grains.  Real whole grains are high in fiber and are not processed.

Processed grains, on the other hand, are really just sugar.  It’s also pretty clear that processed grains are responsible for much of the obesity crisis, as well as the epidemic of atrial fibrillation, heart failure and diabetes that I see in my cardiology practice every day.

Everyone Loves Processed Grains

After a five hour winding five hour bus ride through the thick mountain foliage of southwest China, not far from the Vietnam border, we met Fang. When our family arrived it was after midnight and we were in the middle of a torrential downpour.

His was the last taxi and he agreed to take us the last hour of the journey to China’s Longevity Village.  As part of our conversation, he shared with me that he grew up in China’s Longevity Village and then moved to Bama city as an adult to find work.

Growing up, the only grains he ate was brown rice and whole wheat that was not yet pulverized into flour.  Because this remote village lacked the industrial machinery to process rice and wheat, he had no choice but to eat real whole grains.

Over time, China’s economic miracle made its way to even this remote corner of China.  With economic prosperity also came white rice and white wheat flour.  Fang, like almost everyone else in China, enthusiastically embraced this change.

With processed grains has also come a diabetes, obesity, and heart disease epidemic in China.  Fang was not exempt.  He now had a belly that extended well beyond his belt and he looked nothing like the lean Chinese still living the traditional lifestyle in the village.

4 Things to Know About Grains

Every day patients ask me, “are grains healthy?”  As there is so much confusion about grains, below are four important things to know about grains.

1. Are grains healthy?

The answer to are grains healthy is simple, it depends.  If it is a processed grain, stripped of fiber, then it is really nothing more than sugar.

Sugar, whether it comes from white crystals, high fructose corn syrup,  or processed grains has the same effect to the body.  Metabolism is altered, the gut flora changes, and inflammation is ignited with resulting obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

On the other hand, real whole grains, or those grains which are high in fiber and look like the plant they came from, may protect you from obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.  Indeed, studies show that real whole grains may even be protective against cancer.

In a Harvard University study of 367,442 people followed for 14 years, those who ate the most whole grains were 17% more likely to still be alive, 21% less likely to die from heart disease, 15% less likely to get cancer, and had 34% less diabetes.

These Harvard researchers concluded that it was the fiber in whole grains that is protective.  Fiber reduces inflammation, helps to create a healthy gut flora, and has many other health benefits including blood pressure and cholesterol lowering.

2. Do grains cause weight gain?

The reason why most people gain weight from grains is because most people eat the fiber-less processed grains.  In another Harvard study, researchers studied 173,230 people for as long as 25 years, to understand the effect of grains on body weight.

These Harvard researchers found that for every extra serving of processed grains you average daily, your weight goes up 0.14 pounds per year.  While this doesn’t seem like much, it can quickly add up.

For example, eating cereal for breakfast, a sandwich on white bread for lunch, and a roll at dinner on most days would cause you to gain a pound a year.  For an adult, that works out to be a 45 pound weight gain by age 65!

On the other hand, this same Harvard study showed that for every extra serving of whole grains you enjoy each day, your weight goes down 0.15 pounds per year.  Thus, the more quinoa, flour-less whole wheat, or brown rice you eat, the less you will weigh.

3. Which grains should you buy at the store?

While most health conscientious people know they should eat whole grains, they are confused at the grocery store.  For example, does Fruit Loops, which advertises “whole grains,” really count as a whole grain?

Buy grains high in fiber and with minimal to no processing.  Ideally, you want three grams of fiber for every 100 calories. In addition to fiber, you want something that looks as close to the original plant as possible.  For example, finely ground whole wheat doesn’t look anything like what it did on the plant.

If you like bread, try the flourless Ezekiel bread at your local health food store.  Ezekiel bread packs 3 grams of fiber for each 80 calorie slice.  Alternatively, you can make your own healthy bread.

Finely ground flour is really nothing more than instant sugar for your body. Is it any wonder that even whole-wheat bread is converted to sugar by the body faster than a Snickers bar?

For me, once I was able to free myself of the addictive qualities of traditional flour-based whole wheat breads, I actually came to prefer the flourless varieties because they are more satisfying and don’t leave me craving more.

Like bread, pasta is another processed grain-based product that a lot of people can’t resist. For people who enjoy spaghetti, lasagna or baked ziti, I recommend substituting in spaghetti squash or quinoa.

You can even find great tasting pastas made from mung beans, black beans, or edamame these days at your local health food store or online through Amazon. Our current favorite is edamame spaghetti.

4. Should you avoid gluten?

It seems like almost every food-like product now comes in a gluten free form.  However, even if it is gluten free, it is not a health food.  As I tell my patients, if the package says “gluten free,” it probably isn’t real food.

For example, a recent study examined 3,213 gluten free grain products that you may find on a traditional grocery store shelf.  These researchers concluded that “gluten free” products are less healthy for you than the original products containing wheat.

Sadly, gluten free products are often packed with sugar, processed grains, and unhealthy vegetable oils.  If you have celiac disease or a gluten allergy, the key is to buy gluten free ingredients, like quinoa, brown rice, or oats, rather than gluten free food-like products.

Take Home Message

The key take away is that grains are linked to weight gain or weight loss, health or sickness, depending on which grains you choose.  In my cardiology practice, the number one dietary factor associated with heart disease is sugar.  Sadly, processed grains behave the same way in your body as eating straight white sugar crystals or drinking high fructose corn syrup.

The key to making grains work for you is to select real whole grains.  Real whole grains are high in fiber and look something like the plant from which they came.

For those who are gluten sensitive, stick to gluten free grains like brown rice, quinoa, or millet.  Buy gluten free ingredients, not gluten free food-like products, at the grocery store.

Do you enjoy grains?  How do you eat real whole grains?

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  1. When I make bread, I grind my own wheat flour and use it within 15 minutes, as I heard this preserved the B vitamins, etc. Am I understanding correctly that the act of grinding the wheat kernels makes them not as healthy? Luckily no one in the family has wheat sensitivity but I’d like to know about the healthfulness. Also, I’m wondering about old fashioned rolled oats (not instant)…would those be considered a processed food?

    • Hi Margot,

      In general, the more intact the grain the healthier it is for you. Turning a grain into dust-like flour is where most people have challenges with obesity, diabetes, etc. The process of turning them into fine powder allows the body to instantly turn the flour into sugar. An intact grain, on the other hand, is slowly digested so you don’t get the rapid sugar surge.

      Hope this helps!


  2. Thank you very much.Processed grain is not healthy for a high blood pressure patient. He needs to take it with the permission of a doctor.

  3. Are you saying that if I buy wheat and grind it into flour to make bread that the flour is just like sugar to my body? I buy wheat in bulk and have been grinding it into whole wheat flour to make bread for decades thinking it was healthier as the entire grain was bring used.

    I have checked out a number of copycat recipes for Ezekiel bread and they all take the wheat berries and grind to flour. Plus they all use commercial yeast. I only use natural/wild yeast starter. If you or any of your readers come up with a good recipe, especially using natural yeast, please post.

    • Hi Susan,

      The goal with any grain is to eat them as intact as possible. The less processing the better. This way you can avoid grains behaving like instant sugars to the body.

      When my wife, Jane, makes bread she also grinds her own flour. She uses the coarsest settings possible. Also, she adds almond flour, garbanzo beans, etc. to make it healthier and to further slow digestion.

      Hope this helps!