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Now that we’ve talked a bit about types of carbohydrates and where they come from, I’d like to introduce some commonly discussed (though often misunderstood) concepts.

Whole Grains vs Refined Carbohydrate:

When I was in college and just starting out on my nutrition journey, I remember my mother was struggling through a hard time because of her diabetes. She had seen a dietitian and was exercising, but she was still at her wits’ end trying to get her blood sugar under control. At the time, I was reading about something called the glycemic index, so I said “Ma, why don’t you try whole grains?” She did, and it was the final step to getting her blood sugar under control. I was thrilled I could have such a tangible impact on someone!

So what’s all the hubbub about whole grains? In whole grains, the outer husk has not been removed as it has been in a refined grain. The husk slows both the conversion of starch to sugar, and the absorption of the sugar into the blood. This way, sugar enters the bloodstream in doses the body can handle.

The easiest way to think about this is as follows: Imagine a grain of brown-rice and a grain of white rice in a bowl of water. Which one would soften faster? The answer is the white rice, because there is no outer husk preventing the water from getting to it. Similarly, our digestive enzymes have a harder time getting to the starchy part of a grain of brown rice.

So Where Can I Find Whole Grains?

Depends on whether you want to cook them as they are or find them in prepared foods like breads and pastries. The USDA MyPlate website has a really nice list of examples for refined and whole grains.

It’s getting pretty difficult to assess how healthy a given grain food is. So-called “whole-wheat bread” often has white flour mixed into it, so make sure the bread you buy is 100% whole-wheat or whole-grain. Here are some tips based on my own experience:

  • If it comes in a package, beware.
  • If it has health-claims on it, be even more careful.
  • Pick food products that have less than 5 ingredients.
  • Pick food in which sugar is not the first ingredient.
  • Make sure the serving size is reasonable.
  • Make sure there are less than 10 grams of sugar per serving, but less than 5 grams is even better.

How Much is Too Much?

It can be confusing to figure out how much whole grain to eat. Once humanity switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture, diseases like tooth decay became common. Our ancestors were willing to take a little tooth decay for an abundant source of food, but our current sedentary lifestyle doesn’t demand as much from our diet. Whole grains are nutritious (and delicious) in moderate amounts, but what you can accurately call a “moderate amount” varies from expert to expert.

  • The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines, which are just about the most official (and political) recommendations you can get, suggest about 5-8 oz equivalents per day. (You heard me – ounce equivalents. So much for making nutrition simple.) If you want to know what that means, check out this link on MyPlate. This is about 130 gram (g) of carbohydrate, and about 100g of Net carbs if you have your daily recommended fiber intake.
  • The Atkins people recommend you eat only 20g of net carbohydrate in the induction phase but maintain at 50-70 net carbohydrates (Here’s a link that tells you how to calculate net carbs, and here’s a link to the Atkins Carb-Counter, where you can look up how many carbs are in different foods).

Personally, my recommendations is to make a quarter of your plate whole grains. The rest should be fruits, vegetables and some kind of protein. I disagree with MyPlate on a few points, but for providing a great visual guide for portion size and encouraging people to eat whole foods, it really is very good.


Additional Reference:

Jenkins D, Wolever T, Taylor R, et al. Glycemic index of foods: a physiological basis for carbohydrate exchange. Am J Clin Nutr 1981; 34:362–6.