The Surprising Food Group that Prevents Diabetes


Quick: can you name a food that bumps up blood sugar? Some examples are white pasta and white rice. White bread is another example. 

Here is another question - Can you name a food that may lower diabetes risk? You may be surprised to learn that pasta, bread, and rice may be correct answers, with a caveat. This holds true only when they are in their whole grain form. Here is the scoop on whole grains and how you can use them to lower diabetes risk.

 

Whole Grains for Health and Weight Loss

Whole grains have as much starch and as many carbohydrates and calories as their refined counterparts, but those values do not tell the whole story. Whole grains have different effects on your body than refined grains. There is more than one reason why the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends choosing whole grains!

First, whole grain consumption is directly related to a lower risk for diabetes. In one analysis, people who ate the most whole grains had a 32% lower risk of diabetes than those who ate the least whole grains. [1] Another study found that increasing whole grains by 2 servings per day was linked to a 21% reduction in diabetes incidence. [2]

Additional benefits may result from eating plenty of whole grains. People who eat more of them are more likely to have lower body weights and less unhealthy abdominal fat. [3] Whole grains are also linked to heart health and lower blood pressure.

 

The Secret Behind Whole Grains’ Success


Now you know how great whole grains can be. Next, you may wonder what they are! Whole grains come from the same seeds and soil as do refined grains. They are harvested together in their whole grain form. Then, some grains are sold whole, and others are refined before they are sold. 

The refinement process strips away the nutritious bran and germ layers, leaving only the starchy endosperm. Whole grains retain their bran and germ, including their natural nutrients such as fiber, vitamin E and other antioxidants, potassium, B vitamins, and magnesium. These nutrients contribute to whole grains’ health benefits.

 

Can I Handle the Carbs?


Carbohydrates are a common focus when you are concerned about high blood sugar because carbohydrates, including sugars and starches, are the nutrients with the greatest effects on your blood sugar levels. A low-carbohydrate diet can help you lose weight and lower blood sugar and diabetes risk, and it can have room for a moderate amount of highly nutritious high-carb foods, such as legumes, fruit, and - you guessed it - whole grains.

A good rule of thumb is to make at least half of your grains whole. That means having at least two servings of whole grains per day if you usually have four servings of grains per day, or having three whole grain servings if you usually have five or six total servings of grains. 

To keep whole grains to moderate levels, keep in mind that serving sizes can be smaller than the amount you may be served or the amount you may be used to eating. For example, a serving might be a slice of whole-grain bread, a half-cup of cooked oatmeal, or one-third of a cup of cooked brown rice. 

You can increase your whole grain consumption without adding calories or carbs by substituting whole grains for refined grains that you already eat. For example, swap brown rice for white, whole-grain pasta for white, whole-wheat bread for white, and whole-grain breakfast cereal for refined versions. You can also choose whole grains to replace high-carb foods such as potatoes and, in fact, doing this actually lowers risk for diabetes! [4

 

Finding Whole Grains


Some grains are labeled “whole-grain” or “whole-wheat.” You can recognize others, such as “brown rice,” just by knowing that brown rice is the whole-grain form of rice. (White rice is the refined form). 

Labels on food packages can help you find whole grain products in stores. When searching for whole grain products, check the list of ingredients and choose products that have a whole grain listed as the first ingredient. Terms such as “enriched wheat flour” let you know that the product is refined, not whole-grain.

Whole Grains

  • Amaranth*
  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Buckwheat*
  • Whole-grain corn flour*
  • Whole-grain couscous
  • Oats (steel cut, rolled, or quick cooking)*
  • Popcorn*
  • Quinoa*
  • Brown rice*
  • Wild rice*
  • Rye*
  • Sorghum*
  • Spelt
  • Teff
  • Wheat berries
  • Whole-wheat flour and products containing it
  • Whole-wheat bread (sliced, English muffins, bagels, pita, tortillas, etc.)
  • *Gluten-free
 

What about Gluten?


Some people need to follow a gluten-free diet for reasons such as celiac disease, and many others choose to go gluten-free because they believe it is healthier. There is no need to choose between gluten-free and healthy whole-grains. You can have both! 

Many grains are gluten-free, and you can choose whole-grain versions of them. Brown rice, whole-grain gluten-free pasta and bread, and whole-grain corn tortillas are just a few examples of gluten-free whole grains.

 

Great Ways to Eat Whole-Grains


You can add whole grains to your meals and snacks at any time of day. Keep serving sizes in check, with a goal of about 15 grams per serving, and 1 to 2 servings per meal or snack. Since grains are high in carbs, be aware of the other carbs, such as sweet potatoes and other starchy vegetables, fruit, and beans, that may be in your meal or snack. Also, have your grains with some protein and fat to lower the effect on your blood sugar.

For Breakfast
  • Plain/regular oatmeal
  • Unsweetened shredded wheat or bran flakes
  • Frozen whole-grain pancakes
Whole-Grain Breads
  • Sliced breads
  • English muffins and rolls
  • Hamburger and hot dog buns
  • Pita bread
  • Wraps and tortillas
  • Bagels
For Snacks
  • Brown rice cakes
  • Popcorn
  • Whole grain crackers
  • Spelt pretzels
For Sides
  • Amaranth
  • Teff
  • Bulgur
  • Brown or wild rice
In Recipes
  • In soups and salads
  • In grain salads
  • In pasta dishes
  • Whole-wheat couscous with vegetables and chicken
  • Whole-grain flour in pancakes and other baked goods
  • Whole-wheat breadcrumbs for coating eggplant or chicken
At Restaurants
  • Whole-grain pasta
  • Whole-wheat pizza crust
  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal, steel cut oatmeal
  • Whole-grain tortillas and taco shells

These are just a few ideas for meals and snacks containing whole grains. Remember, you can nearly always choose a whole-grain version of whatever grain you were planning to use.

  • Unsweetened shredded wheat with yogurt and fruit.

  • Oatmeal with nuts and berries.

  • Breakfast bowl with quinoa, eggs, avocado, and spinach.

  • Whole-grain English muffin with peanut butter and fruit.

  • Brown rice cakes spread with almond butter or avocado.

  • Whole-wheat spaghetti with turkey meatballs and tomato sauce.

  • Chicken soft taco on whole-wheat tortilla with salsa, lettuce, tomatoes, and avocado.

  • Soup with buckwheat noodles, vegetables, and tofu.

It is always good to be on the lookout for nutritious superfoods with health benefits, and even better when those foods are easy to come by and great-tasting. Whole grains fit the bill, so keep them in mind as you plan your prediabetes diet for weight loss and blood sugar control. Lark will keep reminding you, too!

 
 

References:

  1.  Aune D, Norat T, Romundstad P, Vatten LJ. Whole grain and refined grain consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of cohort studies. Eur J Epidemiol. 2013;28(11):845-58. doi: 10.1007/s10654-013-9852-5. Epub 2013 Oct 25

  2.  de Munter JS, Hu FB, Spiegelman D, Franz M, van Dam RM. Whole grain, bran, and germ intake and risk of type 2 diabetes: a prospective cohort study and systematic review. PLoS Med. 2007;4(8):e261. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0040261

  3.  Harland JI, Garton LE. Whole-grain intake as a marker of healthy body weight and adiposity. Public Health Nutr. 2008 Jun;11(6):554-63. Epub 2007 Nov 16.

  4.  Muraki I, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Manson JE, Hu FB, Sun Q. Potato consumption and risk of type 2 diabetes: results from three prospective longitudinal cohort studies. Diabetes Care. 2016;39(3):376-364 https://doi.org/10.2337/dc15-0547

Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Assistant Professor of Public Health