The human body is a complex machine, and one of the most interesting parts of it is the digestive system. When people eat food, the process of digestion begins the moment the food enters the mouth.1 People use their teeth to break down the food, and bacteria in the saliva begins the process of extracting nutrients from the food.
From there, people swallow, and the food reaches the stomach where stomach acid reacts with the food to release more nutrients and energy. Those nutrients are then absorbed into the bloodstream when the food passes through the intestines. Muscles in the intestines push the food along so that any waste can be excreted.
For that part of the process to work, the food that we are eating must have sufficient bulk. That bulk comes from dietary fiber. This is why it’s especially important to make sure that you’re incorporating sufficient whole grains into your diet. Without them, you’ll be missing an important element required for a key step of the digestive process.
Whole Grains Are a Great Source of Fiber
Many Americans do not eat enough fibre. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults aim to consume three to five ounce-equivalent servings of fiber per day, of which half should come from whole grains. Whole grains provide almost twice the amount of fiber as refined grains. A half-cup of cooked brown rice or a slice of bread counts as an ounce-equivalent serving of grains.2
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While the presence a large amount of dietary fiber is the most obvious benefit of whole grains since it helps promote a healthy digestive system and keeps the bowels moving regularly, whole grains provide a range of other digestive benefits:
A Healthier Gut Microbiome
Studies show that consuming whole grains can help increase the variety of bacteria in the gut and also help boost the production of short-chain fatty acids. These changes are important for the functioning of the immune system and for digestive health. Those who consume adequate whole grains have fewer inflammatory bacteria and also score better on several tests of markers for the immune response.3
Better Weight Management
Another benefit of consuming whole grains is that it can help decrease the number of calories that are extracted from foods and also slightly boost metabolic rate. This change results in a net loss of energy of around 92 calories per day compared to someone who is eating a similar diet heavier in refined grains.4
Over the course of a year, this works out to the equivalent of nine pounds of potential fat loss simply from switching to whole grains. This makes whole grains especially beneficial for someone who is struggling with weight control.
Blood Sugar Regulation
The way that whole grains are broken down in the digestive system helps slow the release of blood sugar, which can help combat insulin resistance and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.5
Some studies suggest that whole grain intake could help reduce the risk of certain colorectal and gastric cancers.6 It is thought that the phytoestrogens in the grains could have a protective effect, especially for individuals who are middle-aged or older.
Packed with Nutrients
Whole grains are rich in nutrients, including the B-vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, protein, and fiber. These nutrients are all essential for overall health and for preventing disease. The nutrients found in whole grains help prevent constipation and improve digestion, in addition to preventing a range of other minor digestive issues.
What Makes Whole Grains Better Than Refined Grains?
The difference between whole grains and refined grains is that the bran and germ are removed from refined grains in the milling process, leaving only the starchy part of the grain. When this is done, the grain is softer and has a nicer texture, but contains less fiber and other nutrients.
What Foods Are Whole Grains?
Many foods count as whole grains. The most obvious would be whole wheat bread or multigrain bread. Other foods that count as whole grains include brown rice, bulgur, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat. Rolled oats and oatmeal also count as whole grains.
Many individuals assume that quick-cooking oats are not whole grains because they are processed in some way, but this is not strictly true. The difference between quick oats and normal oats is simply the way that the oats are cut.
Some oats are rolled until they are flat and then cut into small pieces, making them cook more quickly. All of the parts of the oats are still there, however. Some oats are steel cut—cut into smaller pieces using steel blades—while some are steamed then rolled to make old-fashioned rolled oats. The nutrient found in these different types of oats are the same. The only difference is how long the oats take to cook.9
As mentioned earlier, most Americans do not consume enough fiber. You should be aiming for at least 14 grams of fiber per 1,000 calories in your diet, so a minimum of 28 grams for the average man and 22 grams for the average woman per day.10
When you first introduce fiber into your diet, you may feel slightly bloated for a little while. You will find that this passes quickly, however, and you will soon experience the benefits of your increased fiber intake. An easy way to increase your fiber and whole grain intake is to swap white bread for wholemeal and to swap white rice for brown rice. Look for cereals that contain extra bran as well or add seeds to your soup for a quick boost.
With these small lifestyle changes, you’re on your way to incorporating more whole grains into your diet and experiencing the digestive benefits they provide.
PhotoCredits: Master1305/shutterstock.com, Justdance/shutterstock.com, ZadorozhnyiViktor/shutterstock.com, ElenaSchweitzer/shutterstock.com