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Paleo Diet Missing on Benefits of Whole Grains

What was not so long ago considered as the cornerstone of a healthy diet, has now been condemned as the source of modern-day Western diseases. One of the reasons given is that we should be eating like our Palaeolithic ancestors did and that means no grains. It seems this was an age of health paradise, if we ignore the fact that the average life expectancy was the ripe old age of 35.

Probably the biggest myth is the assumption that whole grains and high carbohydrate diets are two related issues. Approximately 50% of our energy intake comes from carbohydrates. And with this high carbohydrate intake comes an increased glycaemic load on our bodies, creating a hormonal mess. A series of adverse effects follow, including increased triglycerides, inflammation, oxidative stress, low density atherogenic LDL particles and beta cell dysfunction. This means that the likes of diabetes, heart disease and cancer are not far behind. However, our risk of disease coming from carbohydrates depends on the quality and the amount of carbohydrates we consume. We are talking about a mass of nutrient stripped, processed and refined foods such as baked goods, breads, breakfast cereals, pasta, rice, potatoes and certain beverages. We end up with pure starch, having a high glycemic index (high blood sugar).

But whole grains are a completely different class. First of all, the more complex carbohydrate of the whole grain, the one that keeps the bran and germ, actually creates a very low glycaemic load. Even with the higher glycemic index milled grains no adverse effects have been observed. Secondly, we need to forget the myth that whole grain consumption and high carbohydrate diets are related issues. Given generally low consumption of whole grains, only five percent of the population manage to eat the recommended intake of three servings (48 grams) of whole grains a day and even this seemingly high intake can be considered as a non-extreme low carbohydrate diet. It should be noted here that we are talking about whole grains, so do not confuse them with refined grains.

We merely need to look at the effects of whole grains in the body in both intervention and epidemiological studies to see that their consumption is associated with decreased measures of inflammation and increased insulin sensitivity, which is the exact opposite of refined carbohydrates and what the supporters of the Paleo diet would have us believe.

It is inconsiderate to mix the whole grains and the refined grains together when we examine the differences between them. Whole grains are rich sources of dietary fibre, vitamins B and E, minerals like zinc, iron, phosphorus and magnesium and other beneficial nutrients such as lignans, phytosterols and numerous other phytochemicals, inulin, beta-glucan, phytin and sphingolipids. These are nutrients that are complemented by high vegetable and fruit intake, rather than replaced as the Paleo diet declares. However, the refining process causes substantial losses of these essential vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. For example, wheat flour when refined loses 93% of ferulic acid, 83% of phenolic acids, 79% of flavonoids, 78% of zeaxanthin, 51% of lutein and 42% of beta-cryptoxanthin compared to whole wheat flour.

Meta analyses have found that an increase in whole grain consumption by two serving per day is linked with a 26% decrease in coronary heart disease and a 21% reduction in risk of type 2 diabetes. This means a stronger effect than that observed from increased intake of fruits and vegetables. Consumption of whole grains has been associated with lower risk of gastrointestinal cancers, pancreatic cancer and certain hormone-related cancers, as well as offering major benefits in gut health, providing fuel to both gut cells and the beneficial bacteria that line them.

To conclude, we should say that the consumption of carbohydrates with high glycaemic index from both grain and non grain sources causes an array of illnesses that burden us today, but this is not the case with whole grains. Whole grains have clearly demonstrated their positive effects on our health. Although milled whole grains have a higher glycaemic index, they are nutritionally more valuable as poorly digestible substances get removed during the milling process and nutrient bioavailability is improved. Otherwise grains can be sprouted and soaked in order to enhance nutrient availability.

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