Whole Grains Vs. Refined Grains: Why This Easy Swap Makes Big Difference

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In our quest for a healthier diet, we’re often encouraged to give up carbs. While fruits and veggies could technically be considered carbs, thanks to their fiber and sugar content, this recommendation usually refers to things like rice, cereal, corn chips, and baked goods, especially when these foods are made with refined grains.

The thing is, grains have been an important source of vitamins and minerals since ancient times. But back then, we didn’t strip these grains of their valuable nutrients and we certainly didn’t mix them with a host of sugary ingredients, unhealthy fats, and synthetic additives, like we do today. We ate our grains whole, or we crushed them so they’d be easier to digest. But even when we crushed the grain, we still ate the entire (whole) grain, minus its inedible husk.

What is a whole grain vs. refined grain?

A whole grain is a seed that has its three edible parts still intact: the fiber-rich bran, the nutrient-rich germ, and the energy-producing endosperm. (The inedible husk protects these edible parts.) Every grain is originally harvested as a whole grain and, while some are sold that way, others are taken to a factory to be processed, or ‘refined’.

Whole Grain Anatomy

A refined grain has been stripped of its bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm. The endosperm is the part of the grain that is highest in carbs and contains the least amount of nutrients. That doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Yet most pasta, bread, crackers, cereals, cakes, cookies, and pastries are made with refined grains today. This is true whether the foods are packaged or served fresh, and whether you’re at a supermarket, a bakery, or even a fine restaurant.

Why are refined grains so prominent in our diet? It’s really a matter of practicality.

The only way to make flour is to crush the grains. Crushing the grain releases its natural oils, which are then exposed to air. Once you expose the oil to air, it becomes rancid pretty quickly.

This wasn’t a problem before the industrial age when they’d use the flour soon after milling it. But today, we mill the flour in one part of the country or world and ship it to another, where it then sits on the shelf until someone buys it.

Refining the grain extends its shelf life and allows it to be shipped long distances without spoiling.

What makes a grain ‘whole’?

A whole grain is the edible seed (or ‘kernel’) of a plant and is made up of the bran, germ, and endosperm:

The bran: This protective outer skin is rich in fiber and also provides B-vitamins and antioxidants.

The germ: This is the plant’s reproductive embryo, which can be sprouted into another plant. The germ is the most nutrient-rich part of the grain, containing B-vitamins, protein, healthy fats, and minerals.

The endosperm: This is the source of energy for the germ, allowing it to sprout roots into the ground in order to collect water and nutrients and to sprout upward toward the sun for photosynthesis. While the endosperm is the largest part of the grain, it contains only a small portion of vitamins and minerals.

Refining grains caused widespread disease

Refining grains sounded like a great idea back in the 1800s, when the milling process was first developed. While we were able to ship and store the grains for longer, those grains were stripped of their nutritional value. The end result turned out to be widespread nutritional deficiencies and subsequent illness.

In response to this serious issue, governments began requiring brands to enrich their grains (or the foods containing them) with the vitamins and minerals that were lost in the refining process. Unfortunately, enriching grains only adds back a fraction of the lost nutrients, making them nutritionally inferior to whole grains.

Beyond vitamins and minerals, enriched grains also lack most (or all) of the fiber lost to the milling process. Foods lacking in vitamins and minerals is an obvious issue, but the lack of fiber is also a problem for two big reasons.

The first and very simple reason is that fiber helps to make us feel full after a meal, which, in turn, helps to prevent overeating. A more complex second reason is that fiber helps to slow our body’s digestion of carbohydrates, which, in turn, helps to regulate our blood sugar levels.

So when we eat whole grains carbs that still have their fiber intact, they cause a slower rise in blood sugar, allowing our body to maintain healthy levels more easily. This is a good thing. The opposite is true when eating refined carbohydrates that lack natural fiber. In this case, the carbs are more quickly converted to blood sugar, causing our pancreas to spike its insulin secretion and work harder to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.

The ongoing strain on the body to maintain normal blood sugar has been shown to increase the risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and more.

White Flour Pasta

Examples of whole grains

Generally speaking, if you see the word ‘whole’ or ‘sprouted’ next to the name of grain, then it is ‘whole’ and not ‘refined’. For example, whole wheat and sprouted wheat berries are whole grains, while seeing just wheat flour, white flour, and multi-grain means the grains have been refined.

That said, most whole grains don’t actually include the word ‘whole’. For example, brown rice is a whole grain and is just called ‘brown rice’, not ‘whole rice’. Similarly, white rice is a refined grain but is sold as ‘white rice’ and not ‘refined brown rice’, which it technically is. (White rice starts off as brown rice and becomes white rice once the bran and germ are removed.)

Whole grains include:

  • Amaranth *
  • Barley
  • Black Rice (aka “forbidden rice”)
  • Brown Rice
  • Buckwheat *
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Corn (unrefined)
  • Millet
  • Oats / Oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut)
  • Quinoa *
  • Whole Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Teff
  • Whole Wheat (including durum, farro, Kamut®, and spelt varieties)
  • Wild Rice

* Amaranth, quinoa, and buckwheat are not really grains. They are considered “pseudo-cereals’ or “pseudo-grains’ but are often listed alongside whole grains, because their nutritional profile and preparation are so similar.

Nutritional Chart: Brown Rice vs. White Rice

Notice the nutritional difference between the whole grain (brown rice) and the refined grain (white rice).

NUTRIENT (1 cup) BROWN RICE WHITE RICE
Calories 216 205
Carbohydrates (g) 44.8 44.5
Omega-3 fatty acids (mg) 27.3 20.5
Omega-6 fatty acids (mg) 603 98
Protein (g) 5 4.
Thiamin (mg) 0.2 0
Niacin (mg) 3 0.6
Vitamin B6 (mg) 0.3 0.1
Folate (mcg) 7.8 4.7
Pantothenic Acid (mg) 0.6 0.6
Calcium (mg) 19.5 15.8
Iron (mg) 0.8 0.3
Magnesium (mg) 83.9 19
Phosphorus (mg) 162 68.8
Potassium (mg) 83.9 55.3
Zinc (mg) 1.2 0.6
Copper (mg) 0.2 0.1
Manganese (mg) 1.8 0.7
Selenium (mcg) 19.1 11.9

Nutritional Chart: WHOLE Wheat Flour vs. REFINED Wheat Flour

Need another example? Notice how much more nutrient-rich the whole wheat flour is, as compared to the refined wheat flour.

NUTRIENT WHEAT FLOUR (WHOLE) WHEAT FLOUR (REFINED)
Calories 407 455
Carbohydrates (g) 87.1 95.4
Omega-3 fatty acids (mg) 45.6 27.5
Omega-6 fatty acids (mg) 886 489
Protein (g) 16.4 12.9
Thiamin (mg) 0.5 0.1
Niacin (mg) 7.6 1.6
Vitamin B6 (mg) 0.4 0.1
Folate (mcg) 52.8 32.5
Pantothenic Acid (mg) 1.2 0.5
Calcium (mg) 40.8 18.7
Iron (mg) 4.7 1.5
Magnesium (mg) 166 27.5
Phosphorus (mg) 415 135
Potassium (mg) 486 134
Zinc (mg) 3.5 0.9
Copper (mg) 0.5 0.2
Manganese (mg) 4.6 0.9
Selenium (mcg) 84.8 42.4
Vitamin A (IU) 10.8 0
Vitamin E (mg) 1 0.1
Vitamin K (mcg) 2.3 0.4
Riboflavin (mg) 0.3 0
Choline (mg) 37.4 13
Betaine (mg) 87.4 0

Don’t be fooled by tricky labels!

Even if a packaged food is legitimately made with ‘whole grains’, it can still lack in nutrients. This is because many processed foods will contain a large proportion of unhealthy ingredients. The end result becomes something to avoid. Don’t rely solely on the marketing claims listed on the front side of the label. Always flip it over to read the ingredients directly!

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