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Are you eating enough whole grains?

Published Dec 10, 2007


By Terri Coles

A US Department of Agriculture survey released last week showed that only seven percent of Americans meet the latest recommendations for three servings of whole grains daily, based on a 2 000-calorie diet.

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That's about three slices of whole-wheat bread or one-and-a-half cups of whole-grain pasta. The people eating them are the same ones who buy organic, read product labels and generally watch what they eat. Other surveys have shown that about 40 percent of Americans still don't eat any whole grains at all.

There are many reasons to incorporate whole grains into your diet, but there appears to be just as many excuses for leaving them out.

Take children, for example. In homes with children, who tend to prefer refined grains, the adults ate fewer whole grains. People eat 40 percent of their whole grains for the day at breakfast, getting the rest in smaller doses with lunch (23 percent), dinner (17 percent) and snacks (20 percent), the USDA survey showed.

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In some cases, people are getting whole grains through processed foods that may also be providing unwanted extra calories, sugar or sodium, said Andy Bellatti, who maintains a nutrition blog called Small Bites.

In the past year, sales of whole-grain cookies have gone up by 1 400 percent, said Bellatti, a master's candidate at New York University's Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health. "That's discouraging in a way," he said, "because if people are getting a whole grain from a cookie, that defeats the purpose."

When Americans eat out, which they do for a third of their calories, they are doing even worse on whole grain consumption, the USDA survey also showed. One thousand calories eaten at a restaurant averaged less than one-third of an ounce of whole grains, which means it would take 10 000 restaurant calories to meet the recommended guidelines for whole grain consumption. Options for whole grains, like whole-wheat bread or spaghetti, are slowly becoming more common, Bellatti said, but they often cost more.

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The report was written to establish a baseline for grain consumption after the recommended amounts in the government's dietary guidelines were increased in 2005, which can be used to highlight changes in dietary patterns, the USDA said in a statement.

Bellatti said things may have already improved, because while the consumption recommendations are from 2005, the data used is from the USDA's Continuing Survey of Food Intakes by Individuals in 1994-1996 and 1998.

Since then, whole grains have begun to enjoy a higher profile and are showing up in more processed foods like breads, cereals and cookies. The availability of less common grains like couscous is improving, giving consumers new options beyond brown rice and whole-wheat pasta.

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Despite the improvement, Bellatti doubts most Americans are getting the right amount of whole grains, considering the average is so far below recommendations and that many people aren't eating any at all. "I'd be curious to know if those people who really barely eat any are suddenly going to start," he said.

Even if they wanted to include whole grains in their diet, many people are simply unsure of what to look for, Bellatti explained. Many products use words like "made with whole grains" on the packaging, but that doesn't mean the food is a good source of whole grains or fibre. "'Made with whole grains' could mean that two percent of that product is a whole grain," he said, "so people could think that they're eating more than they actually are."

Bellatti recommended looking for the Whole Grain Council's product labels, which indicate if a food is a good or excellent source of whole grains.

Other consumers may be put off by their unfamiliarity with different grains. If they're unsure about the taste or if they're not certain they can prepare a new product properly, they may not buy it, Bellatti said. And though the study suggested that people who believe it's important to eat whole grains were 36 percent more likely to do so, they might not be sure exactly why that may help their health, Belatti said.

Aside from the possible effects on heart disease and weight, studies have indicated that whole grains may play a role in the prevention of colorectal cancer, gum disease and type 2 diabetes.

People shouldn't feel like they have to buy a lot of new products or spend a lot of money to introduce more whole grains into their diets, Bellatti emphasised. Many common foods are whole grains, including barley, oatmeal, popcorn and rye. And because they're inexpensive and easy to find, they aren't difficult to introduce into your diet.

Bellatti suggested eating air-popped popcorn as a snack, adding uncooked ready-to-eat oatmeal to yogurt, or throwing some barley into soup. Many boxed grains now include cooking instructions on the packaging, to help those who are new to couscous or wheat berries.

"There's really no need to feel like you have to go out of your way," he said. "If you can boil a pot of water, you can boil a pot of quinoa ."

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