whole grain myths

Whole Grains Making You Fat? 3 Myths About Whole Grains

Food made with whole grains are more expensive, but it’s worth it for all of the amazing health benefits, right?

Here’s what we’re told… if a food is made with whole grains, it’s a “health food”, because whole grains are high in fiber which slows digestion and when digestion is slowed there is less of a spike in blood sugar and whole grain foods are high in vitamins. We’ve so bought into this story that the whole grain claim is now the headline on Tostitos, Lucky Charms, and Ritz Crackers.

The truth is, it’s not entirely true. Here are some myths about whole grains to consider.

whole grain english muffins

Myth #1: Whole grains are high in fiber

Grains are predominantly carbohydrates (with a little bit of protein and fat). Carbohydrates are either starch, sugar, fiber or all three.

It IS true that whole grains deliver 2-3x the fiber of refined grains, the problem though, is that the most common whole grains are not super high in fiber to begin with.

GRAINS: Percentage Fiber

  • Brown Rice: 4% (Wow?!)
  • Quinoa: 6%
  • Wild Rice: 6%
  • Corn 7%
  • Oats 11%
  • Whole Wheat 12%
  • Rye: 15%
  • Barley 17%
  • Kamut 19%

Compare that to the fiber in fruits and vegetables…

FRUITS & VEGETABLES: Percentage Fiber (as % of their carbs*)

  • Apple: 15%
  • Pear: 23%
  • Apricot: 25%
  • Red Pepper: 25%
  • Carrot: 29%
  • Kale: 33%
  • White Mushrooms: 33%
  • Celery: 50%
  • Spinach: 50%

*Source: USDA National Nutrient Database. Not an exact comparison with the grains, as grain % was expressed as percent of total grain not just the carb portion, however, fruits and veg are largely carbs with limited fat and protein

So, a slice of 100% whole wheat bread has approximately 2 grams of fiber (vs <1 for white bread) but brings with it 20 grams of carbs (starch and sugar) and 100+ calories.

A 1/4 cup of dried brown rice, also has 2 grams of fiber, 35 grams of carbs and 170 calories.

A cup of cooked spinach, meanwhile, has the same 2 grams of fiber, but a mere 4 grams of carbs and 35 calories.

Food labeling laws in the US require that for a food to be labeled “high fiber” it must contain 5 grams of fiber/serving**. 100% whole wheat bread does not make the cut nor does brown rice. (If bread has more than 2 or 3 grams of fiber per serving, it is likely due to added fiber, bran, and/or seeds.)

So, yes, there is fiber in our whole grains, but it is not as high as some people think, and in addition to paying more for “whole grains,” this fiber comes at a high carb and calorie “cost”

Myth #2: Whole grains don’t produce a spike in blood sugar

There is little difference in blood sugar response to a piece of white bread and a piece of whole wheat bread. When grains are milled into flour (whether white or whole wheat) the surface area is so reduced that it’s easy for digestive enzymes to convert the starch into glucose regardless of how refined the grain is.

The greater difference is among the grains themselves – wheat for example is much more easily converted to glucose than say barley. Rice (including brown) is very high in starch and produces a much greater rise in blood sugar than say couscous or whole grain spaghetti (usually made from semolina/durum wheat which is higher in protein.)

To compound the issue, most breads, crackers, snack bars and cereal have loads of sugar which is VERY rapidly converted to glucose. Multi Grain Cheerios, for example, have 3 grams of fiber/cup and 6 grams of sugar. NutriGrain Cereal Bar – 3 grams of fiber, 11 grams of sugar.

Myth #3: Whole grains have more nutrients

It is true that there is significant loss in nutrients when whole grains lose their bran (the outer layer) and germ. The loss is in protein, oils, the B vitamins, Vitamin E, magnesium, potassium and other minerals. So “more nutrients” IS true when the food is 100% whole grain but, it’s NOT true when the food is not 100% whole grains, which is the case for most “whole grain” foods.

In this case, most of the vitamins and minerals are added.

Tip: If you want to get even MORE nutrients out of grains, soak them in water + vinegar overnight to neutralize some of the anti-nutrients in grains. Eating sprouted grains will also deliver far higher nutrients!

So, Are Whole Grains Making Us Fat?

When our blood sugar spikes and then plummets (from high levels of starch and glucose), we are on a constant hunger roller coaster and each time we hit a low we reach for more sugary, starchy carbs. Insulin, which causes this drop in blood sugar, is the primary hormone that tells cells to hold onto fat. The more insulin, the more fat storage. (Highly simplified summary!)

Are whole grains better than the alternative? Yes, but eating a lot of whole grain foods like breads and pasta might also come with a lot of carbs and calories which leads to weight gain. If you really want to be healthier, eat more fruits and vegetables!

Personally, I eat grains sparingly (usually barley, oatmeal or quinoa) and occasionally indulge in really good French or Italian bread if the basket is placed too close to me. But grains have become a much smaller part of my diet.