There are two main health reasons for switching to whole grains: They contain more fiber, and have a lower glycemic load. Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate that helps your system work better.
The glycemic index is a way of rating foods by how quickly your body converts the carbohydrates into glucose, or sugar. If you’re diabetic you already aware of how whole grains and high-fiber foods like nuts and legumes keep your blood sugar low. Eating foods with a high glycemic load, like white bread or white rice, puts you at higher risk for Type II diabetes, gall bladder disease, and possibly cancer.
Whole grains can help you keep your weight down, since they fill you up faster but with fewer calories. And they are less processed, so they contain more vitamins, too.
Examples of healthy whole grains include brown rice, whole wheat flour, wheat nuts, barley, bulgur wheat, whole oats, buckwheat, rye, and spelt. You can also get unrefined flours made from these grains. There are many types that are in-between—whole-wheat flour with part of the fiber removed, instant oats, bulgur, partially cooked brown rice. Even though they are partially processed, the are all better than white flour.
Switching to whole grains is challenging for a few reasons:
- Taste and texture. Whole grains have a nutty flavor and take longer to chew. (The flip side of this is that foods made of refined white flour are often pasty and tasteless.) It can take getting used to. Try to mix brown and white rice or flour at first, or offer a sandwich of one slice of white bread and one whole grain.
- Cooking times. Whole grains do take longer to cook.Brown rice takes 30 minutes, white only seventeen. You can start with partially processed grain types like bulgur wheat or instant oats that only need soaking. You can also cook them in advance or in bulk—I try to keep extra brown rice for adding to patties or an omelet. Or add the grains to a soup or stew that has to cook for a while anyway. Use a pressure cooker to cut cooking times, or start the grains in a crockpot before you leave for work.
- Restaurants, parties, and processed foods. For me, the biggest challenge to good eating habits is outside temptations. Pizza, hamburger buns and cakes are rarely whole grain. Cook at home as much as you can and offer to bring a dish when invited out. And read ingredients carefully. Many breads, crackers and cereals marketed as healthy do not contain whole grain.
- Baking. Baking also takes a new set of skills, and separate equipment. Yet if you buy most of your bread, you’re either paying a lot or you’re not getting much whole (or both!) You can start by making pancakes or simple pie crusts, then work your way into muffins and breads.
- Storage. Whole grains and flours should be stored in the refrigerator or freezer, as they contain natural oils that can get rancid. This helps keep them free of insects, too.
- Expense. Sometimes whole grains or whole grain products are sold as specialty items, even though they are less processed and should be cheaper. Look for stores that sell in bulk and have a high turnover (for freshness), as these usually offer better prices. Or consider joining a food coop in your community.
Every improvement toward healthy cooking style requires learning curve for both the cook and the “guinea pigs.” What challenges have you found when cooking or baking with whole grains?
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