by Marion Nestle
Dec 31 2007

whole grains: philosophy

It’s the end of the year and snowing in upstate New York and a good day to respond to some questions. How about this one from Migraineur about whole grains: “What I would like to see is evidence that shows that whole grains are a better place to spend part of our daily calorie budget than are vegetables, meats, dairy products, fish, eggs, high quality fats, and fruits. That is to say, am I better off consuming whole grains or omitting grains entirely?”

My philosophy: the answer, of course, is “it depends.” Nutrition is about two things–calories and nutrients. Humans are omnivores. We can get calories and nutrients from just about anything we eat, plant and animal. If getting enough calories is the problem, grains are a big help because they are relatively concentrated in calories. Whole grains are better choices because they provide more nutrients than processed grains. But: if eating too many calories is the problem, then foods with fewer calories are better choices. Whole grains may have more nutrients, but they are just as caloric as processed grains. The science shows that people who eat whole grains are healthier, but good health practices track: people who habitually eat whole grains tend to eat better diets, stay active, and behave in other healthier ways. So it is impossible to tease out the effects of whole grains or any other single food or nutrient from dietary patterns as a whole. What does all this mean? If you like eating grains (and I do), then it’s fine to eat them. If you do not or don’t want to, you don’t have to. I cannot think of one single food or food group that is essential in human diets. And single foods and nutrients always have to be considered within the context of calories. That’s how I see it. Happy new year!