Monday Medical: Whole grains 101: Beyond the wheat box

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Are you confused about whole grains? A trip to the bread aisle of any grocery store may cause confusion in anyone — with so many labels shouting “whole grain” or “gluten free.” What does “whole grain” mean? What is gluten?

You are not alone. Many people are confused about how to incorporate “real” whole grains into their diets. Let me begin by saying that all grains start out whole. What is important to know is that the more grains are processed, the less nutritious they become.

Whole grains come from the entire seed of a plant that is deemed a grain. The seed is made up of three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The bran is the outer layer that contains fiber, B vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. The germ is the inner most part of the seed, where a plant sprouts, and contains B vitamins, protein, minerals and healthy fats. The endosperm part of the seed contains starchy carbohydrates and lesser amounts of vitamins and protein. When a grain overly is processed, the endosperm (the less nutritious part) is the only portion of the seed that remains.

How does gluten fit in? Gluten is a natural protein that gives bread its fluffy texture and pizza dough its pliability. Some of our traditional whole grains — such as wheat, barley and rye — contain gluten. Many people can digest gluten just fine and suffer no ill effects from the protein.

However, for people with diagnosed Celiac disease, gluten is indigestible and causes serious health complications if it is not removed from their diet. Others may suffer from gluten sensitivities, and they are unable to fully break down this protein. If you are sensitive to gluten, you may suffer from symptoms such as irritable bowel syndrome, fatigue, sinusitis and joint pain.

Research on the increase in gluten sensitivities still is not definitive, but many theories abound. Some researchers suggest that the proliferation of wheat hybrids is responsible for the increase in sensitivity to gluten.

In the U.S. alone, there are more than 20,000 wheat hybrids. Compared to wheat hybrids in other countries, the U.S. hybrids have higher gluten content. Additionally, most bread found in grocery stores is mass-produced and has higher gluten content.

Whether you eat a gluten-free diet or not, there are many nutritious grain choices available, so I encourage you to think outside the “wheat box” and sample different whole grains.

What grains are considered “whole grains?” Traditionally, whole grains have been defined as those that come from cereal grasses such as wheat, rice, buckwheat, oats, millet, rye and barley. The new, looser definition of whole grain would be any “grain” whose seed can be ground into flour such as amaranth, flax, chia, teff, kamut and quinoa.

We all can benefit from some variety in our diets. Ancient and nontraditional grains are more nutritious and have a more intense flavor. Because they contain less carbohydrate per serving, many of these non-cereal-grass grains and grain substitutes can be better choices for diabetics. Individuals who have gluten intolerances may benefit from trying ancient grains such as amaranth and nontraditional grain substitutes like flax because they are gluten-free.

Recipe hints: Try millet served under a roasted salmon filet with steamed vegetables. Use ground flax meal and ground almonds mixed with olive oil, butter or coconut oil as a pie crust. You also can substitute quinoa in Middle Eastern tabouleh for the cracked wheat traditionally used in these tasty dishes.

Cara Marrs is a registered dietician at Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cara.marrs@yvmc.org.

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