Chapter Three: Whole Grains

Interestingly, this next chapter comes after at least two printings (of electrons, not ink) of TC's eye-opening Corn Fed Blubber article about the use of corn in the beef industry. Indeed, refined starches conveniently provided by modern agriculture and food industry marketers are part of our body fat woes. (Although we should acknowledge that 90% of humans on our planet owe their lives to agriculture, so it's not all bad!)

But we're going to explore a miniature literature review that will hopefully clear up some misconceptions and lead to suggestions on how to look at grains. There's plenty of hostility against even whole grains among far-left-wing medical authorities, but should we actually avoid them?

Yes, they're a major carb source and yes, a certain level of clinical and sub-clinical gluten sensitivities exist.

But let's give whole grains a fair shake by looking at their "functional" qualities. You'll find that their benefits extend beyond their place as a mere calorie source. Let's begin at the end, so to speak. Whole grains can supply a number of biologically helpful substances and benefits, some of them intertwined...

Fiber is a big deal, of course, since the average American consumes just 5-15 grams daily, depending on the survey you read. This is paltry and not well understood by our ancient DNA. New 2005 DRI Guidelines suggest 38grams of total fiber per day for men and 25g daily for women.

That's more than doublewhat most people consume. In fact, nine out of 10 Americans fall short of the fiber goal. You probably already realize that insoluble fiber (e.g. wheat) is more common while soluble fiber (e.g. oats) is less common. Put simply, these fibers mainly affect the digestive tract (insoluble) and overall metabolic health (soluble).

There is solid and growing evidence that higher fiber intakes offer lower risk of weight (fat) gain (19), partly by lowering the insulin and glycemic effects of a meal. This is in contrast to some of the comments in the "Carbohydrate Roundtable" article here on the site, but it's true: approximately 5g of soluble fiber (beta glucan) can drop the glycemic index of a sucrose meal by 50%.(28)

In fact, it's been estimated that, in a 50g carbohydrate portion, each gram of beta glucan predictably lowers the G.I. by 4 units, "making it a useful functional food component for reducing post-prandial glycemia."(13)

Freaking cool – at least for non-workout times of the day. And fiber, particularly the soluble variety, holds water / forms a gel which improves satiety (fullness) as it slows gastro-intestinal transit.

Oats / Oat bran / beta-glucan: For the physique enthusiast, it's impossible to say too much about the importance of soluble fiber. The smoothing of blood glucose and insulin responses to meals is great, as we touched upon earlier and there's even interference with sucrase activity (table sugar breakdown / absorption) and benefits on peripheral insulin sensitivity, (e.g. out in the muscles) at least regarding psyllium in hypertensive rats.(27)

Human observational studies support this effect in people as well.(16, 18, 22) Improving the insulin sensitivity of skeletal muscle (the body's primary / preferred recipient tissue) is a big deal since so many of Westerners are stressed out and insulin resistant. Oats / soluble fiber can reduce the overall digestibility and calorie availability of meals which may benefit dieters, too.(23)

The caution, however, would be for those trying to eat 3000-4000 kcal per day while "bulking up." It's tough to consume 38g of fiber while doing this. One answer is to stick with old fashioned oats and steel cut (a.k.a. "pinhead" oats) rather than straight oat bran as hot cereal in the morning. (Wheat bran doesn't cook down as a hot cereal.... hence its's "in-soluble.")

These whole-oat versions up the non-fiber carb content appreciably while still offering about 5g fiber (mixed types) per serving. Once cooled a bit, protein powders and / or fruit can easily be added for a tasty, fairly complete meal. Cream of Wheat or Cream of Rice with oat bran or 1-2 tablespoons of ground flax mixed-in is a similar approach.

Fresh-ground Flax seeds: With the possible exception of oats, ground flax is the heavyweight "functional food" of our whole grain lineup. And it's the example that's most misunderstood. You see, flax is one of the potent functional foods that can result in too much of a good thing. First of all, you may have heard that flax oil provides an excessive amount of linolenic acid. This is the "plant omega-3" fatty acid that's indeed essential but has been linked to (advanced) prostate cancer in some but not all research.(5, 17, 21)

In fact, at least one new study suggests the oft-recommended monounsaturates may even be worse (5), so question everything you read. Researchers are.(7). Although any adverse linolenate-prostate relationship is still being debated by researchers, it's been reproduced enough to keep me from using straight flax oil, just until more is known. The pursuit of linolenate as an important fatty acid remains a smart move so long as – just with any type of fat – we aim for the effective, not the maximum dose.

Further, some health authorities (even certain boxes of ground flax, themselves) have actually suggested that three or more tablespoons of ground flax seed (flax meal) may be harmful to susceptible individuals for hormonal reasons.

Why? In part due to the phyto-estrogen content.(29) I've long found it odd that so many bodybuilders embrace flax so readily, even as they curse the estrogenic nature of soy. I'm not sure they all fully understand the debate surrounding whether phyto-estrogens are estrogenic in the body or, instead, anti-estrogenic.

You see, as competitors for a particular estrogen receptor, they can "take the parking place" of endogenous (internal, potent) estradiol. That's cool if you have it circulating in spades. But if your estradiol concentrations are low, you could be accidentally bolstering estrogenic effects with phytoestrogen foods – and that doesn't help male bodybuilders much.

The end-result depends partly on the dose. Rodent work suggests anti-estrogenic effects with a 5% flaxseed exposure but conversely, actual estrogenic effects when the dose was doubled to 10%. Once again, we should aim for the effective, not the maximum dose. (So much for those who rip on moderation, eh?)

Now let me take a step back and say that for the most part, I agree with the choice of flax over soy. The reason has to do with the specific phyto-estrogen compounds involved. Whereas soy contains genistein and daidzein, flax offers lignans that are precursors to "enterolactone," a known aromatase inhibitor like the drug aminoglutethimide.

Although not as powerful (we're talking foods here, not drugs), the inhibitory potency does hover somewhere around 10-30 times weaker.(32) That's still considerable. And we should also consider the high affinity that lignans have for sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which might "bump off" and free-up some precious free-T in our bodies. (See late 90s work by Schottner and colleagues for more.)

This could have benefits if we are sure to keep the T production high by any natural means possible. I urge you to read up on some of the references below such as the ones by Adlercreutz (1993) and others listed herein. At least look at these articles' titles!

Hence, guys who suffer from high endogenous estrogen levels (for whatever reason) and subsequent gynecomastia ("bitch tits"), or those who eat too little kcal and suspect SHBG is robbing them of muscularity (see T-Unleashed) may indeed benefit from 2 tablespoons of ground flax daily.

Once the seeds meet the coffee grinder, the ground stuff should keep for up to 3 months in the fridge.(21) Oh, and if you don't have access to a neatly packaged and labeled flaxseed product yet want more dosing information, a quick-and-dirty tablespoon-to-gram calculator can be found at

Corn: Ever notice that corn is usually referred to as a vegetable? Local grocery store ads attest to this fact and even I refer to it loosely in this way when it's used as a side dish. Corn, like any other grain can be used for "good" or "evil" regarding health and physique. Corn eaten off the cob is a far cry from refined, processed cornmeal junk foods. Did you know that corn has the highest antioxidant activity and phenolic content among common grains?(4) The grain hierarchy goes something like this:

And this is to say nothing of purple / blue corn, which has anthocyanins (and / or related compounds), further kicking up antioxidant effects, anti-inflammatory effects and perhaps even prevention of fat gain!

This latter effect is preliminary, being shown in mice – but it nonetheless lead the authors to describe anthocyanins-related substances as functional food components.(30) And in the fiber department, corn's no lightweight. Fresh or frozen corn has approximately 2-3g fiber per 5-inch cob or 1/2 cup, respectively, so go with these versions of the yellow stuff over more processed versions.

Wheat: Here's a little challenge / experiment: Just try to avoid this stuff, if even for a week. I almost dare you. It's so pervasive in North America that it would be quite difficult to shun - and then it would take some definite creativity, as any gluten intolerant person could tell you.

Although wheat avoidance can be done, your attempt may make you more aware of its near-universality in our food supply. That kind of presence brings money, influence, and power. [Beware upcoming anecdote.... ]

During the pursuit of one of my healthcare licenses, my teacher (who was far less educated than I, making for some awkward interactions) actually decided to "settle" our classroom carb debate with a project. She sent us to the Wheat Foods Council (or related) web site for references! Holy endosperm! Was she actually sending us to the suppliers of North America's staple carb source for unbiased evidence?! As if. It just goes to show you how even academics get influenced. [End anecdotal rant.]

And yet despite its pervasive nature and starchy faults (think about Americans' preference for white spongy fiber-less bread), wheat does have its merits. As with so many other foods, it depends upon the form in which we choose to partake.

Why must we shed its nutritious parts and endeavor to replace the lost benefits through enrichment (B vitamins, iron, etc.)? Taste and mouth-feel are involved. Whole wheat is not very well embraced due to its strong flavor and hearty texture. I'm talking 100% whole wheat (check your food label's Ingredients list), not the brown-dyed white bread that perpetrates as wheat.

I've said it before: From what ingredient is basically ALL bread made in the 'States.... including the white stuff? Yep – wheat!

So stop feeling good about your smoothly textured "wheat" bread sandwich and start seeking the manly stuff. Here's a summary of what you'll gain:

In the end, there's good reason to keep whole grains right up there with your fruit and vegetable intake as a carb source. Fullness and meal satisfaction (satiety), less risk of fat gain over time, better insulin management, improved sex hormone profile, even better academic performance and less fatigue according to researchers.(24, 26)

Give it 2-6 weeks, depending on the desired benefit.(8, 12) Hmm. We seem to have stumbled upon yet another reason to eat (the right) carbohydrates early in the day. In any case, there are some tricky issues with whole grains and all functional foods, so as always: read, learn and think for yourselves!

References and Further Reading:

1. Adlercreutz, H., et al. Inhibition of human aromatase by mammalian lignans and isoflavanoid phytoestrogens. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol 1993; 44(2): 147-153.

2. Adom, K., et al. Phytochemicals and antioxidant activity of milled fractions of different wheat varieties. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Mar 23;53(6):2297-306.

3. Adom, K., et al. Phytochemical profiles and antioxidant activity of wheat varieties. J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Dec 17;51(26):7825-34.

4. Adom, K. and Liu, R. Antioxidant activity of grains. J Agric Food Chem. 2002 Oct 9;50(21):6182-7.

5. Bidoli, F., et al. Macronutrients, fatty acids, cholesterol and prostate cancer risk. Ann Oncol. 2005 Jan;16(1):152-7.

6. Braaten, J., et al. High beta-glucan oat bran and oat gum reduce postprandial blood glucose and insulin in subjects with and without type 2 diabetes. Diabet Med. 1994 Apr;11(3):312-8.

7. Dennis, L., et al. Problems with the assessment of dietary fat in prostate cancer studies. Am J Epidemiol. 2004 Sep 1;160(5):436-44.

8. Dubois, C., et al. Chronic oat bran intake alters postprandial lipemia and lipoproteins in healthy adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 1995 Feb;61(2):325-33.

9. Dutta, S and Hlasko, J. Dietary fiber in pancreatic disease: effect of high fiber diet on fat malabsorption in pancreatic insufficiency and in vitro study of the interaction of dietary fiber with pancreatic enzymes. Am J Clin Nutr. 1985 Mar;41(3):517-25.

10. Franco, C., et al. Visceral obesity and the role of the somatotropic axis in the development of metabolic complications. Growth Horm IGF Res. 2001 Jun;11 Suppl A:S97-102.

11. Huang, T., et al. Overweight and Components of the Metabolic Syndrome in College Students. Diabetes Care 2004; 27:3000-3001.

12. Jacobs, D., et al. Whole grain food intake elevates serum enterolactone. Br J Nutr. 2002 Aug;88(2):111-6.

13. Jenkins, A., et al. Depression of the glycemic index by high levels of beta-glucan fiber in two functional foods tested in type 2 diabetes. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002 Jul;56(7):622-8.

14. Jenkins, D., et al. Effect of wheat bran on glycemic control and risk factors for cardiovascular disease in type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Care. 2002 Sep;25(9):1522-8.

15. Kelley, D., et al. Dietary alpha-linolenic acid and immunocompetence in humans. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991 Jan;53(1):40-6.

16. Koh-Banerjee, P and Rimm, E. Whole grain consumption and weight gain: a review of the epidemiological evidence, potential mechanisms and opportunities for future research. Proc Nutr Soc. 2003 Feb;62(1):25-9.

17. Leitzmann, M., et al. Dietary intake of n-3 and n-6 fatty acids and the risk of prostate cancer. Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 Jul;80(1):204-16.

18. Liese, A., et al. Whole-grain intake and insulin sensitivity: the Insulin Resistance Atherosclerosis Study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Nov;78(5):965-71.

19. Liu, S., et al. Relation between changes in intakes of dietary fiber and grain products and changes in weight and development of obesity among middle-aged women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Nov;78(5):920-7.

20. Martin, M., et al. Interactions between phytoestrogens and human sex steroid binding protein. Life Sci. 1996;58(5):429-36.

21. Mayo Clinic. Flaxseed and Flaxseed Oil (Linum usitatissimum). Mayo Drugs and supplements. 2005; / health / flaxseed / NS_patient-flaxseed; accessed Dec. 4, 2005.

22. McKeown, M. Whole grain intake and insulin sensitivity: evidence from observational studies. Nutr Rev. 2004 Jul;62(7 Pt 1):286-91.

23. Miles, C., et al. Effect of dietary fiber on the metabolizable energy of human diets. J Nutr. 1988 Sep;118(9):1075-81.

24. Rampersaud, G., et al. Breakfast habits, nutritional status, body weight, and academic performance in children and adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005 May;105(5):743-60; quiz 761-2.

25. Rosmond, R. Role of stress in the pathogenesis of the metabolic syndrome. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005 Jan;30(1):1-10.

26. Smith, A., et al. High fibre breakfast cereals reduce fatigue. Appetite. 2001 Dec;37(3):249-50.

27. Song, Y., et al. Soluble dietary fibre improves insulin sensitivity by increasing muscle GLUT-4 content in stroke-prone spontaneously hypertensive rats. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2000 Jan-Feb;27(1-2):41-5.

28. Tappy, L., et al. Effects of breakfast cereals containing various amounts of beta-glucan fibers on plasma glucose and insulin responses in NIDDM subjects. Diabetes Care. 1996 Aug;19(8):831-4.

29. Tou, J. et al. Dose, timing, and duration of flaxseed exposure affect reproductive indices and sex hormone levels in rats. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 1999 Apr 23;56(8):555-70.

30. Tsuda, T., et al. Dietary cyanidin 3-O-beta-D-glucoside-rich purple corn color prevents obesity and ameliorates hyperglycemia in mice. J Nutr. 2003 Jul;133(7):2125-30.

31. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 2005; Chapter 5. Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

32. Wang, C., et al. Lignans and flavanoids inhibit aromatase enzyme in human preadipocytes. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol 1994; 50(3-4): 205-212.