Grains of truth about staple foods

Monday, 02 July, 2012



The simplification of complex nutritional messages has resulted in grain foods like bread and pasta becoming the ‘scapegoat’ for weight gain and bloating, despite ample research to the contrary.

The recent What’s to Gain from Grains? report showed that an estimated 26% of Australians are limiting grain foods like bread and pasta to help lose weight, despite numerous studies confirming that wholegrain consumption has a beneficial effect on weight loss.

Professor Manny Noakes highlighted the importance of choosing quality carbohydrates, rather than regarding them as a homogenous category.

“Cutting out highly refined or fat- and salt-laden carbohydrates is a good idea, but culling high-fibre and low-GI grain foods at the same time is just throwing the baby out with the bath water,” said Professor Noakes.

“Studies show whole grains may have a critically important impact on body composition, particularly in being able to reduce abdominal fat,” she concluded.

In line with Australian Dietary Guidelines, consumption of three serves a day of cereal foods is recommended for reduced risk of weight gain.

Wheat avoidance and IBS

Worryingly, 16% of Australians may be avoiding wheat-based foods, with a significant 35% self-diagnosing, yet Coeliac disease affects just 1% of the population.

According to Dr Jane Muir, specialist in nutrition research of carbohydrates, sufferers of bloating and other digestive complaints - often diagnosed as IBS - can gain relief from their symptoms by following a low FODMAP diet, instead of cutting out all grains.

FODMAPs are short chain carbohydrates which are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. The term is an acronym, deriving from ‘Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Monosaccharides and Polyols’. Their removal from the diet has been found to have a beneficial effect for sufferers of irritable bowel syndrome and other functional gut disorders. This diet was developed at Monash University in Melbourne.

“People who feel more comfortable on a self-managed exclusion diet are most likely experiencing the benefit from reducing their intake of FODMAPs because gluten-free and wheat-free products are naturally low in these type of carbohydrates, so it’s incorrect to blame gluten for their symptoms,” said Dr Jane Muir.

“In fact, they may have a specific FODMAPs intolerance,” she added.

With one in seven Australians affected by IBS, a low FODMAP diet which includes a variety of grains for health is proving to be a promising solution, alleviating symptoms in 70% of sufferers. However, Dr Muir does not advocate the long-term use of low-FODMAP grain products as they can inadvertently reduce natural prebiotics in the gut and is calling for more research into this area.

Gut health

Research from Dr David Topping confirmed that Australia remains in the grip of an Australian fibre paradox: our total fibre intake is high, yet we have the second highest rate of colorectal cancer, killing 80 people every week.

Science is now telling us that fibres may be more effective in combination than individually so there needs to be a greater emphasis on eating not ‘more’ fibre, but a diverse range. In practice, this means soluble, insoluble and crucially, resistant starch, which is low in the Australian diet.

The current consensus is that carbohydrates and grain foods have been mistakenly blamed for many digestive problems and weight gain. In fact, grain foods, particularly whole grains, are vital for bowel health and assist in weight loss, particularly abdominal fat loss.

Robyn Murray, CEO, Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council, emphasised the importance of eating from all food groups, using scientific evidence as the foundation for good health.

“The report and conference provides a vitally important update on the health benefits of grain foods. I hope it helps to diminish some of the misunderstandings of this important staple and encourages healthcare professionals and consumers to choose quality grains as part of their core diet,” she said.

How much wholegrain?

A review of over 130 studies from the last 10 years has reported that people eating up to 50% of their daily grain foods as refined grain foods (without high levels of added fat, sugar or salt) is not linked with increased risk of chronic disease including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

In Australia, the current dietary guidelines recommend “Eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably wholegrain”; however, they do not provide recommendations about what proportion of grain foods can still be consumed as refined grains.

At the Public Health Association of Australia National Food Futures conference last November, Assoc Professor Peter Williams presented the key findings from his scientific literature review paper: What proportion of refined grains can be consumed in a healthy diet?

The majority of studies found no associations between the intake of refined grain foods and cardiovascular disease, diabetes, weight gain or overall mortality.

Assoc Prof Williams concluded, “Consumption of up to 50% of all grain foods as refined grain foods (without high levels of added fat, sugar or salt) is not associated with increased disease risk.”

In practical terms, this means one meal a day can be from refined grains as part of a balanced diet. Refined grain foods can contribute energy-giving carbohydrates and protein to the diet, as well as a range of vitamins, minerals and some dietary fibre. Some refined grain foods have a naturally low glycemic index, such as sourdough white bread, pasta and particular long grain rice varieties, making them the preferred choice.

Australians missing essential nutrients from diet

Although the current dietary guidelines recommend consuming a minimum of four serves of grain-based foods a day, with at least half of those being wholegrain, the research shows that most Australians mistakenly believe that the recommendation is only 2.5 serves per day. This is of concern as grain-based foods significantly contribute to iron, zinc, magnesium, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, folate, fibre, protein and carbohydrate intake.

Over the past two years, consumption of bread, breakfast cereals, pasta, noodles and rice has declined while consumption of mixed meals and takeaway foods and snack bars has increased. Almost a third (28%) of grain-based food intakes currently come from mixed meals and takeaway foods, cakes and pastries.

This is passing the ball firmly to bakers and food processors to ensure their formulations contain a balance of wholegrain and refined grain ingredients to maximise the health benefits to consumers.

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