I grew up in an Indian household, so my access to refined grains was limited to white bread toast maximum twice a week. A lot has changed since then. When I had my own kids, I realized how difficult it could be for a parent to make healthy food choices for their children.
These choices ensure they have a balanced diet every day, which is essential for their healthy growth and also sets their preferences for the future.
Refined grains are everywhere: you can find them in cookies, white bread, flour, pasta, and white rice, to name just a few. With so many options around our kids these days, we as parents assume that they’d prefer refined grain products. However, as I noticed with my daughters, kids would accept healthier versions of grains as happily as refined ones if they get an introduction early enough.
So, what’s the deal with whole grains and refined grains, and how do you make the right choice for your family?
Difference between whole grains and refined grains
The life of every grain starts with a seed. Each seed goes through a different level and type of processing before ending up on our plate. The level of processing determines if the grain is whole or refined.
A grain (or seed) has multiple layers. Inside every seed is a tiny germ, which is the embryo of the plant. This germ is surrounded by an endosperm that provides the nutritional supply for the plant embryo, and around it is a multi-layered kernel called bran. This makes the whole seed, which is then covered by a protective layer called the hull.
During the cleaning and processing of grains, 1 or more outer layers are removed. The outermost, the hull, needs to be removed to make the grain fit for consumption. That’s called de-hulling.
If the processing or cleaning keeps the bran, endosperm, and germ intact, we get a whole grain. Whole wheat flour, brown rice, and popcorn are some examples of whole grains.
If the processing removes one or more parts of bran, germ, or endosperm, we end up with a refined grain. You find such grains in refined flour, white rice, and corn grits, etc.
Why are whole grains better than refined grains?
The bran is rich in fiber and antioxidants, the endosperm has plenty of starchy carbohydrates, and the germ is full of protein, minerals, and a variety of vitamins. The refining process removes 1 or more essential parts of the grain and the vital nutrients contained within. Here are some of the benefits of including whole grains in your daily meals:
- The high content of fiber in whole grains helps reduce cholesterol and the risk of heart-related diseases.
- Rich fiber content also promotes bowel movement.
- Whole grains are a great source of vitamin B, which keeps the nervous system healthy.
- Vitamin B also works to help the body break down fats, protein, and carbohydrates from the food.
- Whole grains are a natural source of iron, which boosts the oxygen supply in the blood. It is strongly recommended for young girls and pregnant women at higher risk of anemia to increase their whole grain consumption.
- Refined grains get digested faster, leading to a sudden spike in blood sugar and then a drop that causes sugar cravings and promotes unhealthy eating habits.
- Whole grains take longer to digest, resulting in a slow and steady increase in blood sugar and preventing unnecessary cravings. For this reason, whole grains help in weight management.
- Most of the processed grains contain high amounts of added salt and sugar.
Whole grains vs. enriched refined grains
As we mentioned, processing the grains removes 1 or more essential parts, which reduces the total nutritional value of the food. To compensate partly for lost nutrition, some companies add minerals and vitamins to the refined grains. These are called enriched refined grains.
As per government recommendations, the added nutrients in enriched refined grains should be in proportion to the original nutrients, but there are always some essential nutrients missing. Also, refined grains are low in natural fiber, and fortifying them doesn’t ensure they meet the total nutritional value needed daily.
The best option is to make whole grains at least half of your daily grain consumption and use enriched or fortified refined grains for the other half.
Why do we need to increase whole grain intake?
According to the dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, the whole grain intake of 98% of the US population is lower than the recommended value for their age group, and 74% of Americans exceed their recommended refined grains intake.
- As per the guidelines, children and adolescents need 3 to 6 cups of grains depending on their age and calorie intake recommendation.
- Most of the age groups reach their total intake, and kids aged 5 or above exceed their intake.
- While the total intake is met or exceeded, whole grain consumption remains low in all the age groups from 2-18 years.
- Refined grain consumption among children is higher than recommended across all age groups.
- The same study found that nearly 7% of children have high cholesterol, while 4% of adolescents have hypertension, a nutrition-related health condition.
How to add more whole grains to daily meals
Simple substitution in the everyday grocery list goes a long way in boosting whole grain consumption for your family, especially your children. You can easily swap white bread with whole wheat bread, white rice with brown rice, or sweet cereals with rolled oats or bran cereal. Snacks options could include popcorns and whole-wheat toast with peanut butter.
Here are some easy recipes you can cook for your kids and make them love grains.