Experience Life Magazine

The Truth About Grains: Whole and Refined

When ground into flours, most grains act like sugar in the body, triggering weight gain, inflammation and blood-sugar imbalances. Here’s why whole kernels are a better option.

The Truth About Refined Grains

Flour is hard to sidestep come mealtime. Breakfast brims with toast, bagels, cereal, pancakes. Lunch is built around sandwiches, wraps, pasta, pizza. And dinner may come with its very own breadbasket.

Flours are produced by crushing grains into fine powders. And those powders form the basis not just for breads and buns, but for a huge variety of processed foods, from cereals, crackers and pizza dough to cookies, cakes and ice cream cones. As a result, the average American now eats 10 servings of refined grains each day.

As our national appetite for flour has inched up, so has the incidence of diet-related ills, such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Coincidence? Many nutrition experts don’t think so. When they weigh the evidence linking food choices and disease, they see the white, dusty fingerprints of flour everywhere.

“Now that trans fats are largely out of the food supply,” says David Ludwig, MD, PhD, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Children’s Hospital Boston, “refined carbohydrates, including refined grain products, are the single most harmful influence in the American diet today.”

Flour started out as an ingenious fix to a vexing problem. Grass seeds were plentiful, but the tough outer shell (the husk) made the seeds difficult to chew and digest. Early humans outsmarted the seeds by grinding them between stones, crushing the outer layers to get at the goodness inside. The result — a coarse powder — was the first whole-grain flour.

The downside was spoilage. Crushing the germ released its oils, which quickly turned rancid when exposed to air. With the advent of industrial milling in the late 1800s, machines began filtering out the germ and pulverized the remaining endosperm into a fine, white powder that lasted on the shelf for months. And so all-purpose white flour was born — along with a host of health problems.

Beneath their rigid architecture, whole-kernel grains conceal an array of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fiber. But when machines pulverize kernels into flour, even whole-grain flour, what’s left behind is a starchy powder capable of wreaking havoc on the body.

The White Menace

Flour, as opposed to whole-kernel grains, is easy to overconsume because most flour-based foods require little chewing and go down rather quickly. “It is so much easier to overconsume any food where the work of chewing or digesting or separating fiber from starch has been done for us,” says functional nutritionist Julie Starkel, MS, MBA, RD.

Overconsuming flour can lead to a number of problems in the body, including:

Blood-Sugar Blues. Smashing a whole-kernel grain to smithereens means it digests faster. Rapid-fire digestion causes blood sugar to spike, which causes a rise in insulin. The result? Not only are you hungry two hours later, but you are also paving the way for insulin resistance and diabetes. “The difference between a whole-kernel grain and a processed grain all boils down to the glycemic index, which is how quickly the body turns food into fuel, or glucose,” says Gerard Mullin, MD, FACN, director of integrative gastroenterology nutrition at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., and coauthor of The Inside Tract: Your Good Gut Guide to Great Digestive Health (Rodale, 2011). Foods made with wheat flour are particularly damaging. A carbohydrate in wheat, called amylopectin A, is more easily converted to blood sugar than just about any other carbohydrate. Two slices of bread made with whole-wheat flour raise blood sugar higher than six teaspoons of table sugar and higher than many candy bars.

“If we were evil scientists and we said, ‘Let’s make the most perfect poison,’ it would be wheat,” says preventive cardiologist William Davis, MD. (For more on why Davis advises against  eating any kind of wheat — including even whole-kernel grains — check out his book, Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health (Rodale, 2011).)

Food Cravings. Over the past 50 years, the amber waves of grain our grandparents enjoyed have been replaced with modern, high-yield dwarf strains of wheat that produce more seeds and grow faster. The result is a dietary wild card, says Davis: “Agricultural geneticists never asked if these new strains of wheat were suitable for human consumption. Their safety has never been tested.” One of the biggest changes in modern wheat is that it contains a modified form of gliadin, a protein found in wheat gluten. Gliadin unleashes a feel-good effect in the brain by morphing into a substance that crosses the blood-brain barrier and binds onto the brain’s opiate receptors. “Gliadin is a very mind-active compound that increases people’s appetites,” says Davis. “People on average eat 400 more calories a day when eating wheat, thanks to the appetite-stimulating effects of gliadin.”

ined grain packs more calories than a whole-kernel grain because it is more concentrated. And foods that are high in grains also tend to be high in sugar and industrialized fats. These are the foods, say many experts, that are causing our obesity and diabetes epidemic.

Metabolic Slowdown. Research shows that the body may shift nutrients into fat storage and away from muscle burning in the presence of high-glycemic-index foods. In 2004, Ludwig and his colleagues at Harvard conducted a study, published in the journal Lancet, in which they fed rats diets with identical nutrients, except for the type of starch. By the end of the study, rats in both groups weighed roughly the same, but those eating a high-glycemic diet had 71 percent more fat than the low-glycemic-index group.

Inflammation. A diet high in grains stokes inflammation. When blood sugar spikes, glucose builds up in the blood like so many standby passengers on a flight. When glucose loiters in the blood, it gets into trouble by attaching itself to nearby proteins. The result is a chemical reaction called glycation, a pro-inflammatory process that plays a role in a host of inflammatory diseases — everything from cataracts to arthritis to heart disease.

GI Disorders. Studies show that the lectins in grains inflame the lining of the gut and create fissures between cells. Also, when whole-kernel grains are refined, 80 percent of the fiber is lost, and gut health suffers. “Without the fiber, you end up with rapid-release carbs in these grains, which is a bad thing for the gut,” says Kathie Swift, MS, RD, coauthor (with Mullin) of The Inside Tract. Plus, fiber helps sweep the gut of debris and supports the body’s critically important elimination and detoxification processes, which also play a role in keeping high cholesterol and inflammation at bay.

Food Allergies/Intolerances. Wheat, in particular, is one of the biggest dietary triggers of food allergies and intolerances. While the exact reason is unclear, many experts blame the higher gluten content of modern wheat varieties. A type of protein found in many grains, including wheat, gluten gives dough elasticity, trapping air bubbles and creating a soft texture. Because soft is considered desirable, wheat today is bred to have more gluten than ever before.

Acid-Alkaline Imbalance. The body has an elaborate system of checks and balances to keep its pH level at a steady 7.4. A diet high in acidic foods, such as grains, forces the body to pull calcium from the bones to keep things on an even keel. When researchers looked at how the diets of more than 500 women affected their bone density, they found that a diet high in refined grains, among other nutrient-poor foods, was linked to bone loss. A highly acidic diet also chips away at our cellular vitality and immunity in ways that can make us vulnerable to chronic disease. “Grains are the only plant foods that generate acidic byproducts,” says Davis. “Wheat, in particular, is among the most potent sources of sulfuric acid, a powerful substance that quickly overcomes the neutralizing effects of alkaline bases.”

This article originally appeared as “A Grain of Truth” in the July/August 2012 issue.

Catherine Guthrie is a Bloomington, Ind.–based writer and an Experience Life contributing editor.

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12 Comment to The Truth About Grains: Whole and Refined

  • Gina says:

    I was very glad to see this article as most times, grains are glorified. This is just ONE of the ways in which health myths are leading us towards poorer and poorer health, especially digestive health which is the root for all health. I also want to share that there are big benefits to refraining from grains all together for a time period, giving the gut a break and at the same time stressing foods that help rebuild gut health and re-establish good gut flora. http://www.gapsdiet.com is a great resource to read more about the GAPS diet or what I call a healing program for life. I personally went through this and successfully got off all my medications that I was taking for Ulcerative Colitis. Feel free to read my personal story here http://simplisticwholistic.com/blog/2012/06/my-gaps-gut-healing-journey. Best!

  • Megan says:

    I have Type II diabetes. I have recently stopped eating carbohydrates other than non-starchy vegetables (>20g a day). I have gone from injecting 30 units of regular insulin 4x a day and 50 units of long-lasting insulin 1x a day to just 20 units of the long-lasting 1x a day! I am watching my blood sugar get lower and lower almost daily. I see myself off of insulin completely in a few more weeks. I have lived the American dream of abundance and junk food and have paid dearly for it. I can’t believe how much better I feel! Now instead of having a tuna sandwich on fluffy white bread I have it wrapped in lettuce.

  • Meredith Beatty says:

    I was so excited to read your article, but was left a little disappointed. It seems you are totally down on the wheat kernel in any form. I agree that processed white flour is evil stuff and we are currently reaping the consequences of decades of consumption. Even the “whole grain” flour and products on the market that purport to be “whole grain” really are not. But what was missing from your article was information about milling your own wheat. This has become more and more popular in my area (Atlanta). It started with homeschoolers and now all kinds of people are discovering the real health benefits of grinding your own wheat and making your own bread. It is fantastic stuff. Go to http://www.breadbeckers.com and check out all their information. There are 25-30 nutrients in “real” bread that’s made from the whole wheat kernel. The enriching process only puts back 4 of those 25-30.
    Thanks!

    • cc says:

      I think the other missing component is how the grains we are eating today have been so genetically modified that they don’t resemble any of the grains that my grandparents or great grandparents grew or ate … theres’ 90% more gluten in the wheat we grow today than the 1940′s … I think that’s why we’re seeing more in tolerances in the population

    • Robb Thurmond says:

      You know, its hard to say this, but the research really is showing that it IS wheat that is bad for us regardless of whether its whole, stone ground, refined or enriched. Its looking like whole wheat flour may be better for us than refined flower, but in the same way that soda with real sugar is better than soda with HFCS. Just because a product has things that are good for you doesn’t mean that the sum of its parts is good for you as well.

      An example: Pectin helps to normalize digestion, lowers cholesterol in the blood, relieves the body of toxins. Similar to pectin properties are agar-agar, derived from red seaweed. Thanks to them, agar-agar in the first place is rich in iodine. And it contains calcium, magnesium, iron, copper, vitamins E, A and B5 and zinc.

      Also agar-agar has similar properties with pectin – supports the liver and normalizes digestion. An important component of our favorite childhood sweets is gelatin. Its basis – the protein components of animal origin. Thanks to them, gelatin is beneficial for skin and hair condition, strength and flexibility of joints, regenerative (recovery) properties of the body.

      The food here? The Marshmallow.

      This article focuses on processed flour in particular, but there is a broad body of research supporting the case against wheat in ANY form. For more information you can read http://www.wheatbellyblog.com/ or get the Wheat Belly book, the research is cited there as well.

      I am not trying to sell the book at all, I just believe this authors hypothesis. I experimented with his diet to see what it was like and pulled all wheat out of my diet for two weeks. With in 4 days my chronic heart burn and IBS cleared up and I felt more alert and present than I have in many years, I have also had to decrease a medication that I take as its efficacy increased and I felt overdosed.

      Am I happy that I have discovered the ill effects of wheat? Not at all. There is a whole host of foods I love that I can no longer eat, but I guess it’s a fair trade. At the least, this articles main point, and that of the author I cited, are well worth your consideration.

    • Cory says:

      The point of the article was to inform people of the health consequences of consuming wheat(grains). Yes white is worse but even your self milled whole wheat is still damaging to the body in numerous ways (reread above). Information is not always in line with what we currently do or think and can be difficult to accept when it contradicts our belief system. It may be “disappointing” to hear but the author seems to have presented the information very well and not sugar coated it with the “white is bad, but wheat is okay” routine. It all has a negative effect on the body in terms of glycemic load leading to multiple health issues.

  • norma jean says:

    my docter put me on a flour free diet, no potatoes, rice or pasta, and it has been 2 weeks my tummy is shrinking, and i don’t get headaches like before i feel great. i have thyroid over active, and 43 years old.

  • Josh Truex says:

    Just goes to show you how much we really know versus what “they” would want us to know. Everyone chasing gluten free diets, replace the same very habits of heavy grain/refined carb intake with something that actually processes faster in our bodies without the healthy fiber that helps clean us out. Overall, processed anything should be out with wholesome natural foods being the primary source of our intake. GREAT ARTICLE!

    • bryanska says:

      You need to be really careful about some imaginary “they”. Instead, learn to think without fear. Read some scientific articles, and realize that each study doesn’t have ALL the answers It takes hundreds of studies to create one workable hypotheses, and then meta-research to find the next direction.

      In the meanwhile, people are terrified of an increasing number of perfectly respectable foods. They hear something “may be associated with” and next thing you know, a reactionary food movememnt is started. Don’t be fooled: this magazine’s “Revolutionary Act” is a reactionary program that wishes to return to some golden age of wholesomeness that never existed.

  • Chip Warren says:

    Nice

  • Such a great article. Thanks for breaking it down in a digestible way (pun intended!). Really, super.

    • norma jean says:

      my docter put me on a flour free diet, plus no potatoes and rice, it has been 2weeks. i feel great my tummy is shrinking and i don’t have headaches like i use to..

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