Docor’s Tip: Whole grains have a whole lot of benefits

Doctor's Tip

All nutrition experts agree that processed (refined) grains are bad for us. Whole (unprocessed) grains, however, are good for us, and are another one of Dr. Michael Greger’s daily dozen — foods we should eat every day as discussed in his book “How Not to Die.”

In spite of unfounded claims on the internet that whole grains cause inflammation, they do not, and actually reduce inflammation. They lower blood markers for inflammation such as CRP (C-reactive protein), and they reduce severity of inflammatory diseases (for example, oatmeal baths for skin inflammation). They also reduce risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity and stroke.

In order to make wise decisions when shopping for grains, you need to know the following:

•COLOR: As with fruit and vegetables, intense color means an abundance of antioxidants and other micronutrients. Avoid white rice, because most of the nutrients have been lost through processing. Choose brown rice, or even better, black rice. Choose red over white quinoa, blue corn and blue popcorn over yellow. Be aware that food companies try to fool you by, for example, adding ingredients like raisin juice concentrate to darken white bread to make it look healthier.

•MISLEADING ADVERTISING: When buying packaged grain products, if the label says “multigrain; “stone-ground;” “100% wheat;” “cracked wheat;” “seven-grain” or “bran,” it usually is not a whole grain product.

•PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Wheat berries and oat groats (available at Natural Grocers) are completely unprocessed except that the indigestible hull has been removed. When you cook and eat these as cereal, they have a low glycemic index — meaning that blood sugar and insulin levels remain stable. Furthermore, they pass through the digestive system slowly and trigger hormones that tell you that you’re full; and when they reach the colon they feed the gut microbiome. However, if grains such as wheat or oats are pulverized into flour, they pass quickly through the stomach and go right into the blood stream, raising blood sugar and insulin levels, meaning they have a high glycemic index. Repeated spikes of blood sugar and insulin over the years lead to heart disease and diabetes, plus the gut microbiome suffers.

•FIVE TO ONE RULE: When buying whole grains such as black or brown rice or oat groats, there is no need to check the food label. But Dr. Greger recommends the 5 to 1 rule when shopping for grain-based products such as bread, tortillas, crackers and pasta. Look at the nutrition facts label, see what the total carbohydrate number is, and right below that what the fiber number is (don’t pay any attention to the percentage column to the right, which just confuses people). Multiply the fiber number by 5. For the product to be healthy, the result should be the same or greater than the number for total carbs. For example, the healthiest bread is Ezekiel low sodium, which is kept in the cooler and can always be found at Mana in Carbondale and Natural Grocers in Glenwood. It is made from sprouts instead of flour, has zero sodium and sugar, and 15 grams of total carbs per serving (1 slice) and 3 grams of fiber. Five times three is fifteen, so this product has lots of fiber and whole grains.

Dr. Greger’s favorite whole grains are barley, brown rice, buckwheat, millet, oats, popcorn, quinoa, rye, teff, whole-wheat pasta and wild rice. He recommends 3 servings a day, with serving sizes being 1/2 cup of hot cereal, pasta or corn kernels; 3 cups of popped popcorn; or 1 tortilla or slice of bread. Air pop your popcorn and consider sprinkling on nutritional yeast, no-salt salt (potassium instead of sodium) and chlorella or cinnamon.

Oats deserve special mention because they contain unique anti-inflammatory compounds called avenanthramides. As noted above, oat groats are unprocessed but take some time to cook. Steel cut oats are minimally processed, thick rolled oats somewhat more. Avoid instant oats, which are processed enough that they have a high glycemic index.

Bottom line: Avoid processed grains, but eat whole grains daily. As Dr. Greger says, “Eat plants, but avoid foods made in a plant.”

Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician with special interest in disease prevention and reversal through nutrition. Free services through Center For Prevention and The People’s Clinic include: one-hour consultations, shop-with-a-doc at Carbondale City Market and cooking classes. Call 970-379-5718 for appointment or email

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