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Grains form the base of food guide pyramids worldwide, together with vegetables and fruits. -filepic
Grains are essential components of our diet and there are many types of grains to choose from. However, not all grains are made the same.
EVER since our ancestors discovered agriculture, grains have played an important role in delivering the energy and nutrients we need to survive and thrive.
It is little wonder then that grains form the base of food guide pyramids worldwide today, together with vegetables and fruits.
In Malaysia, the Health Ministry suggests that between 50% and 70% of our daily energy should come from tubers such as potatoes, grains like rice, oats and barley, or grain products like noodles, bread, cereal and cereal products.
Unfortunately, the consumption of grains is often perceived as the main reason we gain weight.
This is a myth that led Australian health portal Better Health Channel to clarify in its page on common myths in weight loss that: “In the short term, very low-carbohydrate diets can result in greater weight loss than high-carbohydrate diets, but in the long term, weight loss differences appear to be minimal.
“Very low-carbohydrate diets can be unhealthy as carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source for our bodies to work effectively.”
Grains, in other words, are the edible seeds of plants cultivated for food.
While all types of grains and most grain products are good sources of complex carbohydrates, the nutrients they contain depend on the level of processing they go through before they reach supermarket shelves.
Whole grains are grains that go from harvest to packaging with minimal processing. This means that all the natural components in them – the bran, germ and endosperm – are mostly left intact.
“There are a lot of studies linking people who eat more whole grain products with less risk of diseases, and one of the examples of such diseases is diabetes,” says dietitian Prof Winnie Chee.
Whole grains even help with weight control as it gives us satiety, she adds.
There are many types of whole grains available in Malaysian supermarkets, including unpolished rice (more commonly known as brown rice), whole wheat, oats, corn (yes, even popcorn), rye, buckwheat and dehulled barley.
As these grains naturally have a rougher texture, some of them are finely milled to give them a finer texture before they are turned into products such as bread or chapatti.
To differentiate between the two, the finely milled products (with the natural components mostly intact) often come with the term “whole meal” attached.
The Nutrition Society of Malaysia, in its booklet the Wonders of Whole Grains, says that whole grains are rich sources of vitamins B and E, minerals (e.g. magnesium, zinc and selenium), dietary fibre, and numerous phytochemicals.
The germ of the grain provides vitamins B and E, unsaturated fatty acids and phytochemicals while the bran contains dietary fibre, iron, zinc, other minerals, phytochemicals and a small amount of proteins.
The endosperm, which stores the nutrients in the grain, is made up of mainly carbohydrates, some protein, some vitamins and minerals, and phytochemicals.
With food technology, many types of whole grains are processed into refined grains and enriched grains to enhance flavour, edibility or shelf life.
White rice is the most common example of a refined grain in the Malaysian diet, as it is produced by removing the bran and germ from brown rice through milling.
This process often results in the loss of dietary fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that come with the grain’s bran and germ.
To make up for the loss, many producers of refined grain and its products today add B vitamins, minerals and iron back in and call them enriched grains or products.
When a few types of these grains are mixed in a product, they are called multigrain products.
Whole grain all the way?
Even though whole grain has been shown to be the healthier grain, the Health Ministry only recommends whole grains to make up about 50% of our daily grain intake.
Due to whole grains’ high fibre content, people who are not used to a high-fibre diet may feel bloated due to the increased production of stomach gas when they consume a lot of fibre.
Those who wish to increase their fibre intake should always do it gradually to allow their digestive system to adjust to the change in dietary pattern.
It is also important for those who consume high levels of dietary fibre to drink a lot of water, as insufficient water intake can cause constipation among those with a high-fibre diet.
Prof Chee says that the selection of grains is as important as the way they are consumed.
“It’s important to control the portion size and the type of grain,” she says.
“If you are eating whole grain but consuming four plates of it, it is too much in terms of excess calories and you may experience more of the side effects (of high fibre intake),” she explains.
The key to eating grains sounds like most other dietary advice.
“Have a variety and make sure that whatever you do, eat in moderation,” Prof Chee advises.
“Don’t overdo it and don’t under-do it,” she adds.
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