Getting clarity on a grainy picture

Most of us aren’t eating enough grains and, as a result, we’re missing out on some pretty impressive health benefits…

Grain foods tend to get a bad rap these days, with many of us avoiding them for fear of weight gain or because we think gluten-free options are healthier. In fact, only 33 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women get the recommended number of serves of grain foods for their age,  and average intakes of core grain foods dropped by almost one third between 2011 and 2014.  And by not including enough grains (particularly wholegrains) in our diets, we’re short-changing ourselves of some major health benefits, from a slimmer waistline to a longer lifespan. 

What exactly are wholegrains?

Grains are made up of three parts: 
  • the fibre-rich outer layer (called ‘bran’), 
  • the endosperm or starchy core
  • the germ, which is full of vitamins and minerals.  
“When a food is ‘wholegrain’, the entire seed of the plant – all three parts of the grain – is used, which means that all the nutrients remain in the food,” explains Bupa dietitian Rosalyn D’Angelo. When grains are refined (for instance, to make white bread, refined cereals or biscuits) the bran and germ layers are typically removed, along with valuable fibre, vitamins and minerals. So eating mostly wholegrains is a healthier choice – go for products which say ‘contains whole grain’ or ‘high in whole grain’, or list ‘wholemeal’ or ‘whole wheat’ in the ingredients.  

The wholegrain advantage 

As well as being high in fibre, wholegrains pack in a wide range of nutrients, including protein, B vitamins, iron, vitamin E, zinc, magnesium, phosphorus and polyunsaturated fatty acids.  

All those nutrients do our bodies some good, with a 2016 Harvard study involving over 78,000 people concluding that those who have a high wholegrain intake slash their risk of an early death by 20 per cent.   Another recent study found that eating wholegrains is linked to a reduced risk of coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.  “Wholegrains and other high-fibre foods like fruit and vegetables can assist in lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and improve blood sugar control,” says D’Angelo.

rice in the shape of a heart

What about weight? 

It turns out that the assumption that grains are linked to weight gain is misguided – in fact, the scientific evidence says otherwise. Long-term observational studies show that people who include wholegrain and/or high-fibre grain foods are less likely to gain weight over time, plus they tend to have lower BMIs and smaller waistlines.  

So, how does including wholegrains in your diet promote a healthy weight? “It’s a lot to do with the fibre,” says D’Angelo. “Fibre is filling and it lowers the glycaemic index of a food so it releases more slowly into the bloodstream for more sustained energy.”

How many serves do I need to eat?

Adults should aim for six serves of grain foods (mostly wholegrains) per day, according to the Australian Dietary Guidelines. This number changes slightly depending on your age (for instance, women over 50 only need four serves a day) and whether you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.  

It may sound like a lot, but a serving size isn’t necessarily as much as what you’d put on a plate or in a bowl. For instance, one slice of bread, half a cup of cooked rice, porridge, pasta or quinoa or a quarter cup of muesli all count as one serve of grain food.   

“My advice is not to get too caught up in the numbers, but just choose wholegrain whenever you can,” says D'Angelo. “We should be aiming to eat wholegrains such as brown rice, oats, dark ‘seedy’ breads, wholegrain breakfast cereals, quinoa, wholegrain pasta, even corn!” As well as these grainy mainstays, ‘ancient’ grains like millet, amaranth, farro, freekeh and spelt are delicious options and worth adding to your pantry staples.
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