Whole grains vs refined grains: Which is better for you?
We speak to health experts to understand the science behind whole grains, and whether it is for you!
Whether it is the “little different” taste or an “option worth considering”, a lot of people have taken to whole grains as a part of their daily diet. Whole grains, considered extremely healthy, are wide and varied. In India, rajgira or amaranth, kuttu or buckwheat, sabudana or pearl sago, lapsi or broken wheat or dalia, barley or sattu or jau, ragi or finger millet, bajra or pearl millet, jowar or sorghum are some varieties that can be easily found.
“I have started consuming kodri, a whole grain that is pressure-cooked like rice, looks like dalia but is more filling. Also, I have homemade multigrain Thalipeeth and ragi chips for satiate unwanted cravings,” said Mumbai-based Priyamvada Mangal. “It’s part of our tradition, and are also considered healthier than grains like rice — making them an option (worth trying),” said Chennai-based Vignesh Raghupathy, who enjoys Ragi Dosa and Bajra or Kamba Dosa once in a few days.
And then there is Chhavi Auplish, who switched to whole grains as part of an experiment. “Since we’ve been having white rice and wheat since childhood, whole grains may taste a little different but are a welcome change,” Auplish, who has oats, millets, barley and ragi, said.
Call it decision led by health concerns or just a change, whole grains are gradually reclaiming their lost appeal; credit for which goes to nutritionists and experts stressing on the need to eat “wholesome and local foods”. “Our ancestors always consumed whole grains like bajra, jowar, millets, ragi, khapli, hand pounded rice, whole wheat, etc., but over time, because of western influence, busy lifestyle (because whole grains take time to cook), we have moved away from our roots and started consuming refined variations because apparently, they have a better texture and shelf life,” Luke Coutinho, holistic lifestyle coach-integrative medicine told indianexpress.com.
What are whole grains?
Whole grain is basically the grain of any cereal that contains germ, bran, and endosperm. These also include pseudocereals like buckwheat, broken wheat, bulgur wheat, millets, and whole-grain products like ready-to-eat cereals, said Alpa Momaya, senior nutritionist at HealthifyMe. “And they are among the earliest to be cultivated by humankind. These may have been grown as far back as 9000 BC,” mentioned chef Sanjeev Kapoor on his website.
As per an article Whole Grains and Health: Perspective for Asian Indians published in Journal of the Association of Physicians of India (JAPI.org), as whole grains are “low in calories and nutrient-dense”, they are shown to “reduce the risk of diabetes type 2, heart disease like elevated levels of cholesterol, and obesity”.
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Why are they considered better?
“Owing to our sedentary lifestyles, highly refined grains have triggered lifestyle diseases in comparison to our ancestors who did more physical labour. The nutritional value of the grain also reduces when it is refined, in turn, triggering metabolic disorders,” said Dr Manjunath Sukumaran, holistic health coach, chief facilitator, and founder of Harmony Wellness Concepts, who has been advocating for a total switch to whole grains to prevent and alleviate lifestyle issues like blood pressure, diabetes or weight gain, in his Facebook videos.
Bran, which is the outermost layer, is rich in fibre and an important B complex group of vitamins and minerals such as iron, folate, and magnesium. Coutinho mentioned how the bran, germ-contained fibre, essential vitamins and trace minerals like B- vitamin, zinc, manganese, boron are required by our body for health and immunity. “When these grains undergo refining, the fibre and nutrients are stripped away. So, while a whole grain offers the benefit of fibre which benefits our blood sugar levels, satiety factor, and lipids, refined varieties do not, and then we label rice as bad for weight and diabetes,” explained Coutinho.
Foods like white rice and refined wheat have a high glycemic index (GI) — the rate at which blood sugar levels rise after consuming food. “High GI foods lead to a spurt in insulin levels in the blood. Continuously consuming white foods (white rice, sugar, and refined wheat flour) can lead to insulin resistance (type 2 diabetes) in the long run,” said Momaya.
How does the whole grain-mechanism work for one’s body?
“A high fibre diet will keep your digestive system clean and active by adding weight to your stool. It also helps to lower cholesterol levels by preventing the absorption of cholesterol into the bloodstream. Fibre-rich foods also maintain insulin levels in the body as they take time to break down in the digestive tract. Slower breakdown of food ensures that an insulin spike does not take place after a meal,” said Momaya.
Instead of a “3G or 4G diet or three-grain or four-grain diet”, Dr Sukumaran recommends everyone should start with one-grain diet throughout the day (breakfast and lunch), and no-grain diet at dinner time, which should ideally be three hours prior to bed. “High intake of grains throughout the day has made the digestion process more cumbersome. Add to it, the quality of grains like wheat and rice which interrupt our metabolism because of the low-fibre diet. Instead, it is time to opt for whole grains which are high on fibre and aid metabolism,” said Dr Sukumaran, listing some no-grain dinner options like soup or salads or egg pizza.
What to keep in mind when incorporating whole grains?
Most people today choose instant oats as their breakfast option, because of its convenience. Instant oats, however, have little or no nutritional value and can cause spikes in blood sugar levels, argue experts. Real benefits can be obtained from oat groats or steel-cut oats, said Coutinho.
But, whole grains can be made in a similar way as your regular meal options. For example, you can replace regular rice with millets and chopped vegetables, regular wheat roti can be mixed with another flour in the ratio of 1:4 or you can opt for a multigrain flour, said Momaya. “One can make meals more colourful and attractive by adding different coloured vegetables which can be had 3-4 times a week. It is suggested to make these changes gradually,” she said, adding “a mix-and-match of your regular wheat and rice would help make the compliance better.”
Adding herbs and seasonings such as coriander and garlic to rice-based dishes can enhance their flavour, or adding toasted peanuts and sesame seeds to your breakfast dishes can give them the extra crunch, suggested Momaya.
*Millets and ragi can be made into a cheela with vegetable stuffing or plain dosa.
*Khus khus (poppy seeds) can be used to make upma with vegetables.
*Millets can be used to make a regular vegetable pulao and served with vegetable raita.
*Rotis can be made using millet.
*Grains like quinoa, bajra or jowar can be made as bhakri and served with sabji. You can club it with seasonal vegetables and serve with yoghurt to get a complete fibre and protein-rich combination.
*Oats can be made into a porridge and served with some chopped dry fruits and nuts or one can make oats vegetable idli/porridge or oats roti as well.
Whole wheat flour is mostly used for making Indian breads like roti, phulka, parantha and puri. “It is also used in baked goods though it may not always be the main ingredient. This is because it adds a certain heaviness which prevents the dough from rising as high as refined flour does. So it is often mixed with refined flour,” mentioned Kapoor on his website. But this can be remedied if sufficient water is added to the dough and is kneaded for a longer period of time to develop adequate gluten, he recommended. “Also, the dough, if allowed to rise twice before shaping the resultant baked product, can be light as required. Add fats like butter or oil, and milk products like milk by itself or buttermilk or yoghurt can also greatly assist the dough in rising.”
Are whole grains for everyone?
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Since whole grains come with their outer layers, it is necessary to choose the ones that are ethically grown without chemicals, otherwise we could risk ourselves of arsenic poisoning. “Additionally, sometimes certain whole grains that have a higher fibre content like bajra or jowar may not suit individuals with weak and inflamed guts having Irritable Bowel Syndrome, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s, and could irritate the gut linings. “One needs to make an informed decision and either choose other alternatives or sprouted varieties that can help improve digestibility too,” Coutinho advised.
Is the price of whole grains a deterrent, considering one kg of wheat may cost Rs 20 while whole wheat costs Rs 60 for the same quantity? “When the demand is low, the cost goes up, because even farmers and vendors need to sustain and earn their livelihood. Today, whole grains may be attached with a higher price label, but that is why awareness is necessary to get back to the way our ancestors used it,” Coutinho said.
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