Although some of the storm clouds that hung over the grain-based foods industry during the Atkins low-carb diet craze that peaked in the early 2000s have dissipated, its overall perception as it relates to nutritional value remains a bit murky. The publication of “Wheat Belly,” “Grain Brain,” and “No Grain, No Pain,” during the past decade, have kept alive an irrationally negative sentiment toward grain-based foods — particularly refined grains.
So, it was refreshing to see new research published in Advances in Nutrition, a peer reviewed medical journal from the American Society of Nutrition, which claims that refined grain intake should not be linked to chronic diseases or death. The study — aptly titled: “Perspective: Refined Grains and Health: Genuine Risk or Guilt by Association?” — concluded that dietary recommendations by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in 2015 to “make half your grains whole” and similar groups endorsing the reduction of refined grain consumption are misguided because their research only takes into account dietary patterns, not separate food groups.
The study’s authors, which include Glenn Gaesser, director of the Healthy Lifestyles Research Center at Arizona State University, and Sylvia Klinger, a registered dietitian nutritionist, said the reason for refined grains’ unhealthy reputation is because of their inclusion in a dietary pattern containing foods that are the real culprits in the link between an unhealthy dietary pattern and increased risk of a number of chronic diseases such as coronary artery disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension. This dietary pattern, which is mostly seen in Western diets, includes red and processed meats, foods and beverages high in sugar, french fries, high-fat dairy products and refined grains, according to the study. “When this eating pattern is studied as a whole, it takes away from the benefits of products that may be healthy when studied in isolation,” the authors concluded.
Gaesser reviewed research that studied a wide range of enriched grain products — including bread, cereal, pasta, pizza, cookies, cakes and desserts made with grains — separately and not as part of a Western dietary pattern. After reviewing 11 meta-analyses of prospective cohort studies, he found that refined grain intake was not associated with the diseases often mentioned. “The make-half-your-grains-whole messaging has dominated,” Gaesser said. “However, enriched grain messaging has been lost. Eliminating enriched grain products will result in nutrient shortfalls. Refined grain foods that have been enriched and/or fortified help alleviate shortfalls including B-vitamins, folic acid, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin and the mineral iron.”
The study is not suggesting that individuals can gorge on donuts, cake and pizza meal after meal without negative consequences. But, it does say a healthy diet can include up to six or seven servings per day of refined grains without increasing risk for disease.
While there’s still more research to be done on refined grains — Gaesser suggests intake be better defined to distinguish between staple grain foods and “indulgent” grain foods — it was refreshing, for a change, to read a study in which enriched grains weren’t vilified.