Since the time we were small children, most of us have been taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Whether or not it is the most important meal, it is clear that eating them early in the day does prove beneficial for many people.
But, what we consume as the “most important meal of the day” does matter. In short, food is fuel. If we start off the day with bad fuel, we shouldn’t be shocked if our body doesn’t run efficiently and effectively.
In terms of breakfast food suggestions, whole grains typically find a place at the top of the list. They are chock-full of fiber and essential nutrients that provide staying power for hours after they’re eaten.
In fact, numerous benefits come from starting your day with whole grains.
A Closer Look at Whole Grains
Whole grains have been an integral part of the human diet for thousands of years. While these grains may have played an essential role in the human diet throughout the centuries, some believe whole grains should be left off the menu.
Proponents of popular diets, such as the Paleo diet, believe that grain consumption is a no-no when it comes to health. However, there is a caveat to this notion. Not all grains are created (or processed) equally. There is a difference between whole grains and refined grains.
Due to the refining process (key parts are removed), refined grains are thought to be less ideal for health, though the verdict is still out. Some believe the bad rap comes from guilt by association with refined carbohydrates, which tend to be high on the glycemic index.
What Makes a Whole Grain, Whole?
In short, grains refer to the seeds of grass-like plants commonly referred to as cereal (i.e. cereal grains). Whole grains include, but are not limited to:
- Oats (oatmeal)
- Wheat berries
- Whole wheat
Every grain starts as a whole grain. So, whole grain refers to the plant's entire seed in its natural state in the field. The seed of the grain, also called the kernel, is composed of three main parts: The bran, endosperm, and the germ. All three of these parts are edible.
- The bran – This refers to the outer skin of the kernel, which is multi-layered. This contains free radical-fighting antioxidants, minerals, and fiber.
- The endosperm – This middle layer of the grain is composed of starchy carbohydrates, essential nutrients, and proteins. It serves as the food supply for the germ.
- The germ – The germ is the innermost layer of the grain. As the embryo, it also has the potential to sprout new plants. It contains essential nutrients and some fats.
While whole grains can be crushed or rolled (e.g. rolled oats), they are still considered “whole grains” if the three elements above are present. The refining process strips away the bran and germ of the whole grains, leaving only the endosperm.
Research is clear regarding the protective health benefits of whole grains. These benefits stem from them being rich in essential nutrients, phytochemicals, and fiber.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable health benefits of whole grains.
High Fiber for Better Digestive Health
Whole grains are known for their high fiber content. Fiber is essential for digestive support. In short, fiber helps give bulk to stool and helps lower the prevalence of constipation while keeping bowel movements regular. A high fiber diet has also been shown to help combat hemorrhoids.
Furthermore, the fiber contained in whole grains can also act as prebiotics in the gut. This helps promote beneficial gut bacteria — essential for digestive health.
While fiber for overall gut health is crucial, fiber also helps provide satiety and fullness, which makes whole grains a popular morning meal.
Whole Grains Could Help Maintain a Healthy Weight
Since whole grains are rich in dietary fiber and non-digestible carbohydrates, they promote greater satiation. This makes them a great ally for those looking to maintain a healthy weight. In effect, starting your morning with whole grains could help you curb appetite and unnecessary snacking throughout the day.
This also has implications for those looking to lose weight: Being full means eating less. At least that’s the theory. Unlike refined grains, whole grains retain all the properties of the kernel, including fiber. That is why they are a better choice for weight loss.
Interestingly, one research study found that eating three servings of whole grains a day was linked to less belly fat and a lower body mass index (BMI). The implications for helping reduce the risk of obesity are promising.
Whole Grains Are Nutrient-Rich
In addition to the high fiber content, whole grains are also dense in many essential nutrients. Whole grains are high in B-complex vitamins — folate, niacin, and thiamine. They are also rich in minerals. For example, 1 ounce of whole grains (oats) contains:
- 15% of recommended daily intake (RDI) of phosphorous
- 12% of RDI of magnesium
- 9% of RDI of copper
- 7% of RDI of iron
In addition to the essential nutrients, whole grains also contain high amounts of polyphenols like lignan and other micronutrients and compounds, such as ferulic and phytic acid.
These act as potent antioxidants that help fight off the effects of free radicals and oxidative stress.
They May Help Lower Cholesterol
Whole grains are also known to help lower risks for cardiovascular disease, especially when it comes to lower overall cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. These positive effects stem from the high fiber content found in whole grains.
It is well established that dietary soluble fiber helps to lower cholesterol levels. In short, since soluble fiber is not absorbed in the intestine, it can essentially bind to cholesterol in the intestine and help remove it from the body.
Aid in Blood Sugar Regulation
There have also been promising studies that link whole grain consumption with blood sugar regulation — e.g. lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes.
The fiber, essential nutrients, and antioxidants found in whole grains may help improve insulin sensitivity and help slow the absorption of food. This helps prevent spikes in blood sugar and aids metabolism and blood sugar regulation.
Whole grains are also low on the glycemic index, much lower than refined grains. Low-glycemic foods are absorbed more slowly, allowing for better blood glucose regulation.
The Bottom Line
Those that say “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” may be onto something. But, the food choice at breakfast time cannot be overlooked. Whole grains have taken the top spot as one of the go-to breakfast foods around — for a good reason.
Unlike their refined grain cousins, whole grains are rich in essential nutrients and high in fiber, making them an ideal food at breakfast time.
The high fiber content helps improve digestion and promote satiety, keeping you feeling fuller longer. This also has implications when it comes to cardiovascular and metabolic health.
At the beginning of the day, whole grains deserve a place at the breakfast table.
- What's a Whole Grain? A Refined Grain? | Whole Grains Council
- Perspective: Refined Grains and Health: Genuine Risk, or Guilt by Association? | NIH
- Why whole grains are protective: biological mechanisms | NIH
- Whole-grain intake as a marker of healthy body weight and adiposity | NIH
- Whole-grain intake and cardiovascular disease: a meta-analysis | NIH
- Whole grain and refined grain consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of cohort studies | NIH