When we turn the calendar page to September, thoughts of crisp weather and colorful leaves come to mind. Not whole grains. But September is Whole Grains Month, so get ready to add some flair to your sandwich, pasta dish, and breakfast cereal.
More and more Americans are saying yes to whole grains. Since 2010, roughly 55 percent of consumers have ditched white bread for whole-wheat or whole-grain varieties, according to the Shopping for Health 2012 Survey, released in July by the Food Marketing Institute and Prevention magazine. And 2010 also gave rise to something unprecedented: Sales of whole-wheat bread eclipsed sales of white bread, as noted by supermarket guru Phil Lempert.
Why the trend? Perhaps because consumers are becoming more aware of the health benefits of whole grains over white. Among the reasons to make the switch:
• Whole grains are chock full of fiber, key for proper digestion and bowel function. Aim for a product that has 5 grams of fiber or more per serving.
• They're heart-healthy. Soluble fibers in whole grains like oats and barley can lower levels of cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure, thereby reducing risk of heart disease.
• They help control diabetes. Whole grains are digested and absorbed more slowly than refined grains, which helps curtail spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels.
• They're packed with nutrients, including protein, B vitamins, calcium, folic acid, iron, zinc, copper, magnesium, and antioxidants. The same can't be said for equivalent white products.
• They may help ward off cancer. Studies have associated whole-grain consumption with reduced risk of certain cancers, particularly colorectal.
• They're satiating. Whole grains stave off hunger better than refined grains do. If you're looking to lose weight—and keep it off—whole grains can be your ally.
But buyers beware: The bread aisle is notorious for food label fables. Don't fall for labels that say "100 percent wheat" or "wheat flour." Unless the label reads "100 percent whole wheat," "100 percent whole grain," or "whole wheat," you could be getting a product that's just white and stripped of important nutrients. "Multigrain" means the product contains more than one type of grain, but it may not contain any whole grains. Although "stone ground" may sound earthy and natural, it only means the grain has been coarsely ground, with refined flour often appearing as the first ingredient, as opposed to whole grain flour. Beware of the word "organic," too—this refers to the way the grain for the flour was grown, but says nothing about whether the grains within are whole.
Reach for products that list whole grain(s) as the first ingredient. Also look for those bearing the Whole Grain Stamp, signifying that a product contains at least half a serving (8 grams) of whole grains. (The stamp, a brainchild of the Whole Grains Council, can now be found on 7,500 products in 36 countries.)
Remember, however, that the average adult is encouraged to eat at least three servings of whole grain each day, so the stamp will only get you so far. Always flip that package over to check the how much sugar, fat, sodium, and calories the product packs. A whole-grain muffin can set you back 600 calories and be filled with other ingredients that could go against your grain.
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Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.