Food & Nutrition
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A Guide to Grains

Understanding fiber, whole grains and gluten

You hear the terms “whole grain,” “whole wheat,” and “fiber” a lot when it comes to healthy eating and meal planning, but are you confused about which is which and what exactly they mean? Do you also wonder how much of these nutrients people living with diabetes should eat? Your confusion is understandable! This guide may help make the topic more clear, but also talk to your healthcare team about how to add more grains and fiber to your meal plan.

Define the terms

Whole grains contain the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed – the bran, germ, and endosperm. The whole grains Americans commonly eat are: oats (including oatmeal) and corn (including popcorn). We’re now eating more barley, quinoa, and millet, as well. “Whole wheat is a whole grain and whole-wheat flour in the US is always whole-grain,” says Cynthia Harriman of the Whole Grains Council.

According to the Dietary Guidelines 2010 report, whole grains may be part of a healthier eating plan. As for weight loss, the debate continues as to whether grains can help you gain or more easily control a healthy weight. When you do want to eat grain-based foods, those rich in whole grains are a better choice, as they are more nutritious.

According to the Whole Grains Council, the average American eats less than one daily serving of whole grains. It’s not that we don’t eat grains at all, we do, just far too many refined processed grains, instead of whole grains. The Dietary Guidelines suggest you make half the servings of grains you eat whole grains. With sixteen grams of whole grains equaling one serving of whole grains, your per day count should add up to forty-eight grams or three servings. And if you eat more than half your grains as whole grains, all the better in my book.

Dietary fiber includes the portion of plant-based foods that are not digested, plus fiber added to foods, which has health benefits. In my view, the term should actually be “dietary fibers” (plural) because our foods contain many types of fibers, whole grains contain dietary fiber, and there is also fiber in legumes (beans and peas), fruits, and vegetables.

The American Diabetes Association encourages people living with diabetes to follow the fiber guidelines for all Americans. There’s a common notion among people with diabetes that dietary fiber lowers blood glucose after consumption. However, research shows that people need at least forty to fifty grams per day to lower glucose after eating. That’s way more than most Americans eat.

According to the Dietary Guidelines report, Americans “seriously under consume” dietary fiber and fifteen grams per day is noted as the average intake, however other research and fiber experts believe some people eat far less. “A scant four percent of adults eat enough dietary fiber. That’s no surprise because we don’t eat nearly enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes,” says Julie Miller Jones, PhD, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emerita of Food & Nutrition at St. Catherine University in Minnesota. The recommended amount on the Nutrition Facts is twenty-five grams per day, which is based on consuming 2,000 calories a day. If you eat less than 2,000 calories a day, use the recommendation of fourteen grams per 1,000 calories.

Gluten is a protein found in the whole grains wheat, rye, and barley. Therefore, those who need to follow a gluten-free diet need to avoid those grains (which can be harder than you think). There are several gluten-free whole grains, however, including corn, quinoa, and buckwheat. Read more about going gluten-free here.

Nutrition Facts and food packages

Here’s a food trivia question: Do you know why dietary fiber is listed on most Nutrition Facts labels, but whole grains are not? The answer: Nutrition Facts lists nutrients only. Dietary fiber is a nutrient, but whole grains are a component of foods, not a nutrient. Reading food labels can help you find foods with more whole grains and dietary fiber; learn more about understanding those labels here.

The below grocery shopping tips may help you to find foods that contain significant amounts of whole grains:

  • Check the ingredients for the word “whole” followed by the grain. For example: whole wheat.
  • Check the food for a whole grains stamp. The stamp tells you the amount of whole grains in a serving. If the stamp includes the “100% Whole Grains” banner that means all of the grains are whole. The stamp is managed by the Whole Grains Council and can be used by its members who are food manufacturers.
  • See if the food package boasts about its whole grain content, such as “fifteen grams of whole grains per serving” or “100% whole grains.” Manufacturers are allowed to make these types of factual statements on food packages.

To increase the amount of whole grains and dietary fiber you eat doesn’t mean “eat more.” When I counsel people to eat more whole grains I suggest they make substitutions – brown rice for white rice, oatmeal with wheat germ or flax for cream of wheat, and to try new whole-grain options, such as quinoa, barley, or quick-cooking whole-wheat couscous.

To increase dietary fiber, I suggest they focus on eating sufficient amounts of fruits and vegetables (2 ½ cups a day of each) – the amounts recommended in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. “To eat healthfully make an effort to meet both your whole grain and fiber goals,” says Jones.

Hope Warshaw, MMSc, RD, CDE*, is the author of several best-selling books published by the American Diabetes Association, including Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy and Guide to Healthy Restaurant Eating. She’s a frequent contributor to Diabetic Living. Warshaw is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

*“Certified Diabetes Educator” and “CDE” are certification marks owned and registered by the National Certification Board for Diabetes Educators (NCBDE). NCBDE is not affiliated in any way with Sanofi US. NCBDE does not sponsor or endorse any diabetes-related products or services.


© 2013 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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