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whole grains

How to eat more whole grains in 5 steps

Despite popular “low grain” trends over the last few years (read gluten-free, low-carb and Paleo diets), whole grains are seeing an increase in popularity. So much so that more and more products are now labeled as containing “whole grains”. But in all this marketing hype, we’re left to figure out how to eat more whole grains.

This is the second part of my series on whole grains, the first part (why eat whole grains) covered the meaning of whole grains, as well as their benefits. In this section, we’re going to see how to eat more whole grains in 5 easy steps.

1. Understanding whole grains

To recap quickly, a whole grain will contain the whole kernel, i.e.:whole-wheat

  • The bran – the outer layer.
  • The endosperm – the main part of the grain, which can be ground to make flour.
  • The germ – the component which will germinate if planted.

Refined grains will consist mainly of the endosperm, which is made by and far of carbohydrates, a few vitamins and minerals, and very little fiber. With the industrial revolution and the motorization of mills, came the realization that refined flours were easier to cook with, had an improved texture and taste, and had a longer shelf life.

However, in the process, almost all the fiber and a large portion of the vitamins and minerals are lost. And a few good decades later, a whole lot of studies are confirming that those are actually the ones conferring grains their health properties.

2. Know your portion size

The recommended daily amount of whole grain, according to the USDA, ranges between 6 and 7 “ounce equivalents” respectively for adult women and men. They define one “ounce equivalent” as containing 16g of whole grains. In layman terms, this translates as:

  • 1 slice of bread
  • 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereals (puffed or flaked)
  • ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked cereals
  • 1 biscuit, mini bagel, small muffin, pancake, small flour tortilla, full-size corn tortilla

They also recommend that 50% of our daily intake should be made of whole grains. Unfortunately, there are several pitfalls out there:

Whole grain label starts at 51% whole grain

According to the FDA, to be labeled “whole grain”, a food must contain at least 51% of whole grains by weight. This does, however, mean that 49% can be junk (see Learn to decipher labels below). A whole wheat cookie is still a cookie…

Recomposed whole grains rather than a whole kernels

In most processed products (all bakery products, for example), the final “whole grain” is actually a combination of bran, endosperm, and germ that were initially separated, then mixed back together. Those processed whole grains have a lower content of fiber and nutrients than their original intact kernels.

“Whole grain” doesn’t always mean “rich in fiber”Burger with whole wheat bun

A whole grain product is not a guarantee that you will get optimum fiber intake. So if increasing your intake of fiber is one of your prime concern, be aware that eating processed whole grain products will not be enough. You’ll need to increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Processed whole grains will still trigger blood sugar spikes

Even though these will be less than for refined grains, they will still send you reaching for your next sugar/starch fix sooner than whole kernels (think porridge oats vs. steel-cut oats).

Watch out for the Whole Grain Stamp

The basic Whole Grain Stamp, although confirming that the product contains at least 8g of whole grains per serving, doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain a whole lot of sugar, solid fat, salt, and other additives. Look out rather for the 100% Whole Grain Stamp, which will contain a minimum of 16g per serving, i.e. 1 of your 6 or 7 whole grain daily recommended servings.

We don’t need to eat more grain products

Americans, by and far, eat too many grain-based products on a daily basis, so the idea here is not to add whole grains to your diet, but to cleverly substitute some of your refined grain products for healthier whole grain ones.

3. How to spot the right whole grains

Step 1. Think.

No matter how many claims of “high-fiber content” and “whole grains” a highly-processed, nutrient-poor product can make, it remains a highly-processed, nutrient-poor product. Breakfast sugary cereals for kids are a prime example. A lot of them have jumped on the “whole grain” bandwagon, yet their first ingredient is sugar and they’re loaded with additives and colorings. Same for biscuits and other snacks. If this isn’t a product that would qualify as unprocessed, clean and nutrient-rich otherwise, being labeled “whole grain” will not change that.

Step 2. Learn to decipher labels

Now that we’ve eliminated the wolf-disguised-as-lamb gang, let’s focus on those products like bread or pasta. Those are processed food, but they will naturally find themselves in your pantry. When shopping for them, make sure that the whole grains are top of that list, or second, just after water.

whole wheat bread ingredients

Step 3. Aim for the whole kernel.

The ultimate whole grains are, well, grains that still look whole. If you compare porridge oats (which are steamed and rolled) and steel-cut oats, you can clearly see that the latter still look like a whole kernel, cut in pieces. Same for rice. If you can still see the bran on the grains, you’re on the right track. Millet, buckwheat, and quinoa, for example, are prepared whole. This makes popcorn (minus added butter) is the ultimate whole grain snack!

4. An easier approach: the magic carb-to-fiber ratio

The theory

Ok, by now you can see that adding whole grains to your diet might not be as easy as it first seemed. Luckily, Harvard researchers studied over 500 grain-based products in two major grocery stores and came up with an easier solution. They found out that the healthier products had a minimum fiber to carbohydrates ratio of 1:10.

In practice

What does this mean? It means that if you check any whole grain product label, you can just focus on the grams of carbohydrates given for 100g, then check the fiber amount.

Example 1: Ancient grains whole bread

Ancient-Grain-Nutrition-PanelIn this example, the carbohydrates total 38g per 100g of product, and the fiber, 7g. Divide the carbohydrates by 10. We obtain 3.8. So there must be *at least* 3.8g of fiber in this product.

At 7g, this product easily passes the test. This is incidentally a whole grain gluten-free bread. Being gluten-free, it contains quite a few added ingredients, some of it being refined starches.

Ingredients – Water, whole grain brown rice flour, tapioca starch, corn starch, whole grain millet flour, whole grain sorghum flour, whole grain teff flour, egg whites, corn dextrin, cane sugar, canola oil, potato flour, honey, rice bran extract, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, whole grain quinoa, whole grain teff, ground flax seed, flax seeds, whole grain millet, whole grain amaranth flour, hemp seeds, baking powder, yeast, xanthan gum, salt vinegar, enzymes (calcium sulfate & enzymes)


Example 2 – Whole grains English muffins

Whole-Wheat-Bread-LabelHere, the carbohydrates per serving are 29g. Based on this, the amount of fiber should be 2.9g. Instead, the fiber content is only 2g. It’s not a large difference, but enough to flag potential no-nos here.

When checking the ingredients list, the whole grains only appear after the enriched wheat flour (refined flour enriched in vitamins and minerals) and the water. The muffins also contain some preservatives and other additives.

Ingredients – Enriched wheat flour [flour, malted barley flour, reduced iron, niacin, thiamin mononitrate (vitamin b1), riboflavin (vitamin b2), folic acid], water, whole wheat flour, farina, sugar, salt, yeast, calcium propionate and sorbic acid (to preserve freshness), wheat gluten, soybean oil, grain vinegar, monoglycerides, soy lecithin, soy, whey (milk).


NB – I have actually really battled to find any bread that was labeled “whole grain” and did not meet the above guideline, which is fabulous by my standards. I didn’t check any cereals, snacks or biscuits though!

5. How to add whole grain to your diet

Based on the fact that the average American diet already contains enough grain-based products, the main idea to increase your whole grain intake is to replace some (half, ideally) of your refined grain products by 100% whole grain ones. Or three-quarters of your refined grain products by 50% whole grain ones.

This doesn’t have to be done overnight, but here are some pointers to steer you in the right direction.

  • Swap your white bread for whole wheat bread. If you don’t care much for the taste of whole wheat bread, look out for a 50/50 bread with maximum fiber content.
  • Swap your normal pasta for whole wheat pasta. It is a bit of an acquired taste, but I find that, in most recipes with sauce, the difference in flavor disappears.
  • Swap your white rice for brown rice. It does take a little longer to cook though, so bear this in mind.
  • Swap porridge oats for steel-cut oats. Again, they take longer to cook so give yourself a little bit more time.
  • Start experimenting with seed-like grains, such as quinoa and millet, instead of rice, couscous, and porridge.

Replace refined flour in your recipes with whole grain ones. Be careful though, unrefined flours are heavier than refined ones and will change the texture of your cakes and biscuits. Start with replacing a quarter of your refined flour and increase the quantity from there on. Or simply look out for new recipes using whole grain flours.
Those will also bring a different, stronger (more nutty) flavor to your baking. Recipes who will do well with the change include cakes where the amount of flour is minimal (typically less than 150g of flour per cake), which contain nuts or which use spices for added flavors.

Have you figured out how to eat more whole grains yet?

I hope so, but if I have missed any tip or advice on how to eat more whole grains for your fellow clean-eaters out there, please send them in the comments below so we can all benefit.

Remember one thing though. These are vitally important changes to make for your health. Yet, they are easy (whole grain products are everywhere and are on the rise) and cheap (they actually don’t cost that much more than your refined products). And because whole grains fill you up more than refined grains, you might end up eating less, recouping the little extra cost. Win-win.

And if you’ve missed the first part of my Whole grains series, Why eat whole grains, be sure to catch it there!

Why eat whole grains? Understanding their health benefits

Grains in seem to be having a hard time lately, with gluten being blamed by some for major health problems and new grain-free diets springing up every year. So one can easily wonder why eat whole grains at all, as recommended by health authorities everywhere.

However, according to Dr. Frank Hu, Professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and author of two long-running studies, eating 70g of whole grains per day could reduce your risk of dying by 5%. With each additional 28g serving, the risk of dying of heart disease is reduced by 9%. The study also found that replacing refined grains and red meats by whole grains in equal amounts could potentially increase your lifespan by 8% to 20%.

There is so much to explain about whole grains that I have split this subject in two. Part 1 covers Why eat whole grains, and Part 2 deals with ways to eat more whole grains.

What are whole grains?

Mixed whole grainsGrains, also called cereals, are the seeds of some grasses, which are cultivated for food. The following are all grains you’re likely to come across in the shops, although not all in the form of whole seeds (alternative names in brackets):

  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Buckwheat (or kasha)
  • Corn (hominy, popcorn, maize)
  • Millet
  • Oats (oatmeal)
  • Quinoa
  • Rice
  • Rye
  • Sorghum
  • Spelt
  • Teff
  • Wheat (triticale, semolina, seitan, farro, kamut)
  • Wild Rice

Whole grains vs. refined grains

A whole grain will contain the whole kernel, i.e.:

  • The bran – the outer layer, which contains vitamins, minerals, and fibers.
  • The endosperm – the main part of the grain, which can be ground to make flour. Initially destined to feed the embryo, the germ, when it develops into a new plant. Contains carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
  •  The germ – the smallest component of the kernel, which is supposed to germinate if planted. Contains proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fat.

100% whole grains will contain all 3 parts of the kernel (the bran, the endosperm, and the germ). To obtain refined grains, whole grains are milled to remove the bran and the germ. The end result is of finer texture and keeps for longer. The process removes, however, a lot of the nutrients, in particular, fiber.

Wheat fieldWhole grains can still be milled, rolled, crushed or cracked. As long as the whole of the kernel is present in the end product, they are still “whole grains”.

Note – when we eat refined grains, our bodies actually use nutrients to digest these nutrient-poor foods, which leaves us poorer in nutrients than before eating them!

Note 2 – This is why you might come across the terms “enriched grains” and “fortified grains”. “Enriched grains” means some of the nutrients lost during the milling stage are replaced, such as vitamins. “Fortified grains” means that some nutrients that were not initially in the kernel have been added.

Whole grains and fibers

As you can see from the Nutritional info above, one of the main nutrient to be removed during the refining process is fiber. It’s the part of a plant food that the body cannot digest. As it moves through our digestive system, it absorbs water and helps the body eliminate food waste quicker.

A higher consumption is linked with a lower risk of heart disease, as it helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and stabilizes blood sugar. It also fills you up and is an essential tool for weight loss and weight management.

whole-wheatThere are 2 varieties of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Good sources of insoluble fiber in grains are whole wheat and popcorn (minus any added butter or sugar), but also teff, spelt and millet. Barley and oatmeal, as well as amaranth, contain soluble fiber. The body needs both in equal measures for optimal health.

The current recommended intake of fiber ranges from 21 to 25 grams for women and 30 to 38 grams for men. However, the vast majority of us only get to about half of that amount per day, mostly thanks to our highly processed diet of refined grains and our low intake of high-fiber food such as fruits and vegetables.

Check my next post on How to eat more whole grains to figure out how to increase your fiber intake the easy way.

So why eat whole grains?

The higher fiber content of whole grains is linked with lowering your general risk of mortality, but that’s not the only reason why eating whole grains is beneficial to our bodies. The bran and germ of grains also contain a whole range of phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals, as well as proteins, all playing a beneficial role. Let’s list a few of the main benefits here:

1. They slow down digestion,

…stabilizing your blood sugar and insulin levels. When ingested, refined grains break down immediately into glucose, much the same way as pure sugar. This sends your blood sugar rocketing, then plummeting, later on, causing sugar crash and cravings.
Whole grains are broken down more slowly, keeping you full for longer.

2. They have been found to help with weight management

…by not sending you reaching for the next sugar or starchy fix, three servings per day being associated with less abdominal fat.

3. Whole grains, therefore, help with preventing type 2 diabetes

…through healthy weight control and stabilization of your blood sugar levels. Those benefits kick in from only two servings per day (read my post on How to eat more whole grains to figure out what a serving is). This could be due to their high-fiber and high-magnesium content, both linked with better carbohydrate metabolism and insulin sensitivity.

4. Whole grains can help lower blood cholesterol,

Whole grain breads are best…oats being a real champion in this category. Their higher soluble fiber content helps with eliminating cholesterol, by binding the cholesterol and its precursors together in the digestive tract and eliminating it quickly. The antioxidants found in oats also play a role.

5. They can help decrease your blood pressure,

…in particular, whole grains with a high soluble fiber content, such as barley and oats. Their antioxidants help improve cardiovascular health and reduce inflammation.

6. Numerous studies on more than 20 types of cancer

…have found a link between eating three servings of whole grains per day and a reduced risk of cancer. This is in particular valid for gastrointestinal cancers and cancers of the oral cavity, such as pharynx, esophagus, and larynx.
Whole grains offer protective nutrients, such as fiber, antioxidants (vitamin E and selenium in particular) and phytochemicals which can help suppress the growth of cancer cells, block DNA damage and prevent the formation of carcinogens.

And if the benefits of whole grains start at just two servings per day, research has shown that the health improvements increase with each extra serving, to reach the 3-4 servings of whole grains recommended daily by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The take-home message: load up on whole grains for optimal health

How to do this? There are a lot of easy ways to identify whole grains in your food and increase your intake. Read up on those in my next article on How to eat more whole grains.

7 reasons why eating clean can make you lose weight

Have you ever wondered whether Eating Clean could help you shed a few kilograms? If so, check out those 7 reasons why eating clean can make you lose weight. We’re going to try and explain how a cleaner diet can help you lose a few cms.

First, let’s clarify a few important points.

Long-term eating habits vs. temporary diet

Clean eating tends to be more of a lifestyle than an actual weight-loss diet. A diet is usually aimed solely at losing weight. You stick to it for the time it takes to reach your goal weight or quit, whichever happens soonest.

Eating clean is a long-term choice and is seen more as a journey than an end in itself, with health benefits over the long term.

And because they are set in the long term, your changes, big or little, to a cleaner food intake become habits. And you’re thus more likely to reap their weight loss benefits for longer, without the yo-yo effect that fad-dieters know too well.

Clean food vs. reduced calorie intake

Clean eating for weight lossA lot of weight loss plans out there based on clean eating are in fact low-calorie diets. You will be reducing your intake of calorie-dense food, such as sugar and alcohol (good), but also fat (not so good, as your brain and other vital organs need some on a daily basis).

So while those might help you lose weight quicker, you are likely to swiftly come across the usual pitfalls of short-term diets:

  • Hunger and cravings (although reduced if you’ve cut down on sugar and refined starches)
  • Plateau once the body has adapted to the new reduced-calorie intake
  • Lack of essential nutrients, which can lead to fatigue and poor general health

That said, let’s go through the reasons why eating clean can help reduce your waistline.

1. Sugar and refined carbs are out of the window

Clean eating and weight loss
Sugar and refined starches are mostly out.

This is a major reason why eating clean can lead to weight loss. A little biology recap:

Insulin converts ingested carbohydrates, whether simple (sugar) or complex (like whole grains) into glucose. That glucose can then be used directly as an energy source by the body.

But, by and far, we don’t spend enough energy nowadays, so the unused glucose gets stored as fat, in case the body needs it at a later stage. Of course, we’ll consume more carbohydrates and produce more glucose before that fat store is actually needed…

Simple carbs transform into glucose very rapidly to produce energy but don’t otherwise bring many other beneficial nutrients (empty calories). Complex carbs get digested more slowly and contain other vital nutrients, such as vitamins and fibers.

A lot of the products out there containing sugar and simple carbs are processed. By sticking to lesser-processed or whole products, you are cutting out your major sources of refined carbs, and your body will produce less quick-release glucose. This is actually in line with the mostly sedentary lifestyle of today’s average man or woman. Our energy expenditure is basically moving around in a temperature-controlled house, driving in a car, sitting all day in front of a computer and rounding up the day with more sitting in front of the TV.

2. More complex carbs = fewer cravings and crashes

Eat clean for weight loss
Whole grains keep the sugar cravings at bay.

Another side-effect of refined carbs is the “sugar crash”. When large quantities of sugar or refined carbs are absorbed, the body will equally produce a large amount of insulin to deal with it. The insulin will promptly take the glucose from the bloodstream to either send it to the tissues for energy or get it stored as fat. Which then leads to an excessive dip in glucose in the bloodstream. This creates a sense of lethargy, irritation and general discomfort.

When this happens, the body sends strong signals to quickly replenish in glucose, making you crave more sugar and refined carbs. Which is why people are somewhat addicted to sugar, their bodies constantly craving their next “fix”.

But when those refined carbs are replaced by complex carbs, i.e. whole grains, the glucose uptake is much slower, leaving a steady flow of glucose in the bloodstream. This means that you don’t get that sugar crash. It means you won’t go reaching for that packet of sweets or doughnut mid-morning or mid-afternoon.

Check my 2-part post on the benefits of whole grains and easy ways to add more whole grains to your diet.

3. Fewer GI spikes and crashes = day-long energy

Another consequence of the switch to more complex carbs is that you get a steady flow of energy throughout the day. This encourages a more active lifestyle.

It might mean simply walking faster, taking the stairs, spending more time playing with the kids or being more active around the house. But it all eventually adds up in terms of calorie expenditure and muscle toning, both of which contribute to weight loss in the long run.

4. Less processed food = more beneficial products

Losing weight with clean eating
Fruits help satisfy a sweet tooth.

And as industrial foodstuff tends to be sugar- and fat-laden, they also are calorie-dense, without being particularly nutrient-dense. With those out of the window, you’ll naturally have more space for whole food, which will provide more vitamins, minerals, fibers etc. without the heavy calorie count.

For example, fruits are also a great tool to satisfy your sweet tooth, while not piling up the calories too quickly or getting a sugar rush (and its evil twin, the sugar crash). But while it’s easy to go over 500 calories in a 100g packet of sweets, it’s much harder to eat 500-calories worth of apples in a day (around 5 apples), let alone in one sitting!

One the subject of calories, if you consider that a mere can of soft drink will set you back 150 calories from sugar alone, it’s easy to see how switching to plain water could lead to weight loss.

5. Fewer additives will give your body a detox

By simply removing a lot of the additives in industrial foodstuff, you will give your digestive system a break.

We know that your gut health has a direct effect on your general and mental health. Improving it will have a positive impact on the rest of your body. If your diet consisted of heavily processed food before and you decide to clean up your diet drastically, you might even get some of the typical symptoms of detox, such as headaches, spots, tiredness or even flu-like symptoms.

Once your body has adapted to your new clean food intake, though, you are likely to have more energy and generally feel better. This will go a long way towards helping you stick to your new way of eating and decrease or stabilize your weight.

6. More protein = more energy expenditure and slower energy release

Clean eating and weight control
Proteins keep you fuller for longer.

The vast majority of processed meat products does contain a decently high percentage of carbs: those cost less than the actual meat or fish, make for a great crust and are a cheap binding agent and filler at the same time. So switching to plain meat or fish is likely to increase the percentage of protein you eat.

How can it help you lose weight? Proteins take need around three times more energy to digest than carbohydrates. So you’re actually burning more calories through just replacing some carbohydrate by proteins. And that’s exactly what would happen if you choose, for example, roast chicken over the crumbed processed variety, plain fish fillets over fish fingers, or pork chops over pork sausage.

The digestion of proteins is also slower than carbs. They stay in your stomach for longer, keeping you, therefore, full for longer, and will provide a more steady release of energy than carbohydrates.

Proteins play an essential role in maintaining your current muscle mass, as your body will use its amino acids to build or preserve your muscles. They, therefore, help to slow down the muscle loss usually linked with normal weight-loss diets.

7. Full fat products will keep you fuller for longer

Normal, unprocessed foodstuff will contain some fat, more for meat and dairy products, and less for grains, but they will contain fat. Back when fat was touted as the root cause of most health issues, otherwise plain, clean products became processed to make them fat-free or low-fat. With added sugar, starches and other flavor-enhancing additives to make them addictive (think yogurts).

By switching back to these products in their most natural form, you’ll automatically end up eating more unprocessed fat. And this has the benefit of keeping you fuller for longer, as well as reducing cravings and helping you stay away from sugar- or starch-laden snacks.

So, to recap…

Eat clean and lose weight
Weight loss might well be the best side-effect of clean eating.

The only real way to lose weight to somehow create a calorie deficit, i.e. eating daily less energy than you spend. But one of the side-effects of clean eating might well be weight loss. You’ll be switching from calorie-dense foodstuff to nutrient-dense ones, which typically contain fewer calories.

You’ll also have more energy throughout the day. This is likely to translate into being generally more active and increasing your energy expenditure.

Some vitamin deficiencies can seriously hinder weight loss or even lead you to gain weight. A more nutrient-rich diet will go a long way towards meeting your daily requirements in vitamins and minerals.

And unlike most fad diets, which are unsustainable in the long run, clean eating is sustainable in the long term. It creates the basis for healthier habits, thereby ensuring that your new figure is here to stay.

So yes, even though clean eating should not considered a quick weight-loss solution, it might well lead to a trimmer waistline over time.

Other articles you might be interested in:

Want to understand what Clean Eating is? Need help getting started with eating clean? Could do with some ideas for clean breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks?
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