When it comes to whole grains, there’s not a lot of middle ground. You either love them or hate them–and stay away because you're following a low-carb diet–even though nutrition experts and the US Dietary Guidelines agree that whole grains are part of a healthy diet and encourage individuals to eat more.

Naysayers believe that grains (of any kind) promote inflammation, which can lead to numerous chronic diseases, and cause weight gain. Yet nothing could be further from the truth, since whole grains aren’t only recommended for health, they’re also critical for it, containing vital nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamin E, vitamin B6, potassium, and magnesium.

Busting the myths about whole grains and health problems

One reason people avoid grains is that they believe that modern-day wheat has a lower nutritional profile than it once did. While wheat has been bred to increase yields, “numerous studies emphasize that these changes have not greatly impacted its nutritional profile (aside from slightly higher fiber counts and lower minerals) and that modern wheats do not have higher levels of gluten,” says Kelly Toups, M.L.A., R.D., L.D.N., director of nutrition at Oldways, noting that a study in Nutrition Bulletin supports these statements.

There’s also concern that today's wheat may be connected with health issues, but studies have found no evidence of this. “There’s no evidence that whole wheat is linked to any health risks,” says Sharon Palmer, M.S.F.S., R.D.N., plant-powered dietitian in Los Angeles who offers free resources at sharonpalmer.com, adding that you should avoid certain grains if you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, but otherwise, gluten doesn’t pose any health risk to the majority of the population. “In fact, whole grains, including whole wheat, are linked with multiple health benefits, including lower risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.”

Whole grains lead to a healthy gut microbiome and improved metabolism

Take, for instance, a 2017 report from the American Institute of Cancer Research and the World Cancer Fund, which found that three servings of whole-grain foods per day reduced the risk of colorectal cancer by 17 percent. The evidence for eating more whole grains was even stronger than the evidence for fiber alone, Toups says. Although fiber is a known nutrition powerhouse, whole grains have a number of other bioactive compounds, many of which are thought to have anti-carcinogenic properties. These include vitamin E, selenium, copper, zinc, lignans, phytoestrogens, and phenolic compounds.

The health powers of whole grains extend to the gut microbiome as well. As Toups notes, in a randomized clinical trial of 81 adults published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,  the group eating whole grains had significantly higher concentrations of "good" gut microbes which significantly improved their metabolisms over the six-week study compared with the group eating refined grains (and all other foods were kept the same between the two groups).

The question of whole grains and weight gain, explored

And the idea that grains might cause weight gain, as many people following low-carb diets believe? Once again, science doesn’t support this. Using national health survey data from 9,341 adults in Australia, researchers found that people avoiding core grain foods were significantly more likely to be overweight or obese than those who ate grains, despite consuming fewer calories than grain eaters, per a study published in the journal Nutrients. “Part of this could be attributed to whole grains’ beneficial effect on metabolism and gut microbiome,” Toups says.

Here’s the real irony: Because grain avoiders eat fewer fruits and vegetables, weight problems may be just one consequence of this low-carb approach to skipping all the nutrients and antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals in these whole plant-based foods. Avoiding any single good group is a bad idea, Toups explains. “People who avoid grains are putting themselves at risk not only of nutrient deficiencies but possibly chronic disease as well,” Toups says.

Whole versus refined grains: Knowing the difference is key

When you’re looking to add whole grains to your diet, know this: Not all grains are created equal. “To get the biggest nutritional bang for your buck, choose whole-grain foods,” Toups says.

The List of Whole Grains Includes:

  • Brown Rice
  • Whole Oats
  • Whole Wheat
  • Buckwheat
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Farro
  • Popcorn
  • Barley
  • Corn or Maize
  • Spelt

Whole grains are those that contain all of their original bran, germ, and endosperm. “Most of the grain’s nutrients – and flavor – are in the bran and germ, which are routinely stripped out when grains are refined,” Toups says.

Refining whole wheat flour to make white flour greatly decreases its nutrients, including fiber, protein, vitamin E, vitamin B6, potassium, and magnesium. Refined grains are actually processed down to such a small size in flour particles that they’re rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, producing a sharp increase in blood glucose levels followed by a sharp decline, driving up hunger just as sugar does, Palmer says. These refined grains also don’t provide as much satiety as whole grains and tend to be higher in calories, which means you’ll eat more without feeling full.

In the end, these refined grains don’t provide the same benefits as whole grains. “Refined grains are linked with weight gain and cardiovascular disease risk,” Palmer says. That’s one reason the Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee emphasized a need to shift toward a higher proportion of total grains coming from whole grains and reducing refined grains.

How to get the most from grains

When choosing whole grains, look for the Whole Grain Stamp, a yellow and black packaging symbol found on more than 13,000 products around the world that displays how many grams of whole grains are in one serving of the product, Toups says. No stamp? Look for other clues like the word “whole” in the ingredient list and the grams of fiber in each serving, since the higher the better. Bread, for instance, should have at least 3 and optimally 4 grams of fiber.

Then shoot for a variety of grains in your diet, to increase the diversity of nutrients you get, Palmer says. She advises starting with brown rice and then adding quinoa and farro to your meals, as they’re easier to find and more familiar to most people. You can also substitute whole grain flour for white flour in your recipes, starting with 50 percent of the recipe and then moving forward.

Going against the grains might be trendy, but as with other diet fads, it’s a recipe for poor health. Instead, eat those whole grains with confidence and get healthier as a result. As Palmer says, “It’s not about low-carb but healthy carbs.”

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