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!

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  • Thank you Marion! I really appreciate this answer, because since the “to grain or not to grain” question has been raised, I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out this answer.

    I’m a minimal-dairy-eating vegetarian, so for me, the problem isn’t where to spend my calorie budget, it’s getting an adequate amount of high-quality calories, which would be difficult to achieve given a diet of only fruits, vegetables, and the occasional egg or cup of yogurt.

    Whole grains are therefore essential to my diet, but if I ate meat or more dairy, which are calorie-dense, it sounds like they might not be. That makes perfect sense. I do think that many people (not everyone) would benefit from a meatless diet, in which whole grains inevitably have a role.

    The problem with whole grains seems to occur when folks consider them a generically “healthy” food (a mistake clearly encouraged by food marketers), and therefore consider them an alternative to fruits and vegetables, which they certainly aren’t.

  • Charles

    Well there’s an interesting discussion about the effects of complex carbohydrates here:

    And it seems to demonstrate that complex carb consumption drives bad heart health markers in the blood.

    “On a fully vegetarian, completely home grown, ultra low fat, low salt, complex carbohydrate diet these Bantu natives show exactly the same rise in blood pressure with age as Westeners do. Their systolic pressure approximates quite closely to that “age plus 100″ rule of thumb which used to be considered normal in the UK and diastolic pressure followed systolic as you would expect. Fish eaters stuck with a systolic around 120-130mmHg and a diastolic around 70mmHg, life long. Remember both groups only ate 4g/d of salt. Now what does that tell you about salt and hypertension? Anyway, the politically correctest Bantu had significant markers of CV deterioration with age, not so the fish eaters.”

    Two groups of Bantus, one that ate a lot of fish, another totally vegetarian. So the researchers thought it was the fish oils. But when the gave the fish oils to a group of Swedes, it did nothing in particular.

    So looking at it, the difference was that the Bantu non-vegetarian group was replacing carbohydrates with the fish, doubling the protein, increasing fat by 50%, and lowering carbohydrate intake by 15%.

    And those were the folks with the best outcomes.