Why It’s OK to Eat Refined Grains

Chopped tomatoes, basils and herbs on top of sliced baguette.

You love white bread, pasta, and rice, but given the push by nutrition experts to increase whole grain intake, you may feel bad for preferring, and eating, the refined kind. You can stop feeling guilty now! Research has discovered why it’s OK to eat refined grains. 

Refined grains vs. whole grains 

Refined grains undergo milling, a process that removes the bran and germ from the whole grain. As a result of milling, refined grains have a finer texture and a longer shelf life. The downside is that milling removes some of the fiber, iron, and many B vitamins found in whole grains.

Golden wheat in the field on a sunny day.

Refined grains undergo milling, but that’s not the whole story.

Good news about refined grains

Refined grains are often fingered for contributing to chronic health problems, but a 2019 study has found they are not to blame. Research shows that when refined grains are taken as a group, there is no evidence linking them with type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer, or dying early.

Perhaps the company refined grains keep is the problem. The influence of refined grains on health are often lumped in with the effects of a person’s overall diet, which may not be particularly nutritious. 

Balanced eating patterns matter most when it comes to avoiding chronic health conditions. It’s likely that a steady diet of saturated fat, sodium, added sugar, and inadequate fiber is more likely to blame for common illnesses than a piece or two of white bread and a serving of rice every day. 

 

Bowl of white pasta topped with shrimp and chopped parsley.

If you love white pasta, it’s OK to make it part of a balanced eating plan.

Nutrients found in refined grains

Most refined grains sold in the U.S. are made from enriched flour. That means they supply added iron, and four B vitamins: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid.  Americans get much of their iron and B vitamins from enriched grains, such as breakfast cereal, bread, and pasta.

Folic acid, a B vitamin that’s added to refined grains, is very important to help prevent neural tube defects (NTD) that occur early in pregnancy, when a woman may not know she is expecting. Since the US started requiring folic acid fortification in 1998, the prevalence of babies being born with a NTD had decreased by 35%.  

Of course, all refined grains are not created equal; some are more nutritious than others.  Bread, cereal, pasta, and rice provide more nutrients than cookies, cake, and chips, which most people should save for treats. 

Small cupcakes with different colored frosting.

Cupcakes, cake, candy, cookies, and other sweets are treats, and not necessarily everyday foods.

Is starch good for you?

Shunning grain foods is fashionable, but I don’t advise it. In addition to vitamins and minerals, grains contain complex carbohydrates your body needs.

Resistant starch is found in foods such as white rice, white pasta, and potatoes.  Bacteria in the gut feed on resistant starch and produce compounds that support gut health and overall health.

Retrograde starch is a type of resistant starch formed when starchy foods, such as rice and pasta, are cooked and then cooled. Cooked and cooled grains have more resistant starch than when warm.  Reheating cooked and cooled foods does not decrease retrograde starch content. 

Turkey lettuce with avocado and tomato on white bread.

White bread is an important source of iron and B vitamins.

How many servings of grains should you eat every day?

While it’s OK to eat refined grains, people who follow a 2,000-calorie eating plan require at least three servings of whole grains out of a total daily suggested intake of six grain servings

Experts suggest eating half your grains as whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, breakfast cereal, and brown rice.  Whole grains generally contain more fiber and higher levels of certain nutrients than their more refined counterparts, and they may help with weight control. 

Bottom line on grains

There’s room for refined grains, such as white rice, bread, and pasta, in a healthy diet. Save sweets, crackers, and chips for occasional indulgences, however.

Overall, a nutritious, enjoyable eating plan matters most for supporting health. No single food, or food group, is problematic for most people. 

why it's OK to eat white bread, white pasta, and white rice

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