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The Wonders of Wholegrains
For a long time, refined grains were considered better only because they were more expensive. They thus acquired an upmarket reputation, and so most of us preferred white flour and white rice even though they were devoid of nutrients. We forgot that Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, would often advise his wealthy patrons to follow their servants' practice and shift to wholegrains to cure diseases.
But modern diets include more refined foods than wholegrains. Traditional grains such as wholewheat, millet, oats, barley and brown rice have been virtually lost in today's fast food jungle. So what is it that distinguishes wholegrains from refined ones?
As the name suggests, a wholegrain consists of the entire grain comprising three parts:
1. The outer covering, called bran, which is rich in fibre that keeps the digestive system healthy, provides bulk, helps control cholesterol and blood sugar and promotes the growth of healthy bacteria.
2. The inner part is called the germ, which is attached to the bran and contains most of the nutrients-proteins, vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.
3. The rest comprises the endosperm, rich in carbohydrate and made up of starch.
When a wholegrain is refined, it changes its nutrition profile and a lot more. During the refining process, the outer covering-the fibre-rich bran is removed and since the nutrient-rich germ is attached to the bran, it is also ripped off, leaving just the endosperm or starch minus the fibre and most of the nutrients.
Refined foods include maida (white flour), polished rice, white bread, cornflakes and even sooji. These are devoid of the goodness of the wholegrains and provide only carbohydrates.
Wholegrains are high in complex carbohydrates and provide plant proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. They also offer special disease-preventing components-lignans, tocotrienols, phenolic compounds, phytic acid, tannins and enzyme inhibitors-that have been linked to reduced risks of coronary artery disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and other chronic diseases.
Refined foods, on the other hand, have a high glycemic index. Besides, the finer the grain is ground, the greater its surface area exposed to digestive enzymes and the quicker it is to digest. This means starches in refined foods convert into glucose in no time. This phenomenon, however, also contributes to insulin resistance leading to obesity and later to type-2 diabetes.
Current dietary recommendations in India, based on the food pyramid, advocate an increased consumption of wholegrains making them at least half of the cereals consumed in the diet. In addition, WHO recommends increased production and availability of wholegrain cereals such as wheat and partially polished rice.