Back in the day, we used to equate anyone who ate whole grains to being “hippies” and “tree huggers.” They would get shunned as being too “earthy” and not being as “sophisticated” as those of us who ate foods that were processed. Well, the tables have turned my friends, and guess who had it right all along? Not those of us who ate white bread and sugary cereals for breakfast, that’s for sure. On top of that, those “hippies” seemed to stay pretty thin, while the rest of us “sophisticates” started to gain weight. What we are learning about how our body metabolizes processed grains may explain why those two disparate conditions were occurring. Whole grains are important, and we are now starting to fully understand why.

There are three major components to a whole grain: the bran, or outer layer of the grain which contains the fiber and a lot of minerals and vitamins; the germ, which is the new plant that would grow if you planted that grain, where we find additional vitamins and minerals, healthy fats, and protein; and the starch, also called the endosperm, which is essentially the energy that the baby plant would use to grow.

When that grain gets processed, the bran and the germ are removed, which causes the nutritional value of that grain to diminish drastically. Not only that, but what you are left with is essentially the starch, which our bodies can very quickly turn into sugar.

It’s already bad enough that we are losing the most important components when we process grains, but to make matters worse, we are now understanding that our bodies metabolize a whole grain very differently than a processed grain. While the whole grain is more nutrient dense, the fiber and oils it contains help to slow down the digestive process, meaning that 1) we will feel fuller for a longer time and not eat as often, and 2) as the starch enters our blood stream, it does so at a much slower rate, which means that our blood sugar levels are much more stabilized. Having stable blood sugars is important for your body because that means that less insulin is moved into your blood. Insulin’s job is not only to move the sugar into your cells, but it is also responsible for storing fat in your cells. The more sugar/refined carbohydrates consumed, the more insulin is needed, the more fat is stored. That doesn’t sound good to me at all. When we eat whole grains our mental focus, physical endurance, and blood sugar levels are all improved, and we’re not feeding our fat cells either.

In comparison, eating a lot of processed grain means that there aren’t the oils and fiber slowing down the sugar absorption, causing large amounts of sugar to be dumped into your blood stream at one time. Not only are we dealing with the metabolic effects of processed grains, but once all of that insulin has moved the sugars and fats into our cells, we can also see a dramatic drop in blood sugar levels, which in most cases affects our ability to think clearly, makes us want to take a nap, and may cause us to eat another “high sugar” food to get our energy levels back up. It’s a vicious cycle that can ultimately lead to overweight or obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. What a bummer.

So, the bottom line here is to decrease the amount of processed and refined grains in your diet as much as possible. Whole-grain breads, cereals, rice and pastas are now easily found at your local grocery store – and you don’t even have to go to the “Natural Products” aisle to find them! And let’s not forget that portion control also plays a role here too. Just because you have changed to eating brown rice doesn’t mean you can have three bowls of it. Enjoy your whole grains in moderation. Yes, you might have to get used to the subtle flavor changes, but before you know it, you will not only find yourself enjoying whole-grain products, but you will find that you will be feeling more energized throughout the day, eating less frequently, and you just might lose a pound or five as your body begins to thank you for taking better care of it. So, embrace your inner free spirit and get that burger on a nutritious whole-wheat bun. Whole grains are cool man! Peace.