Nancy, in the section on carbohydrates in your Sports Nutrition Guidebook, you wrote that half of the grains we eat should be whole grains. The last few years I have steered away from refined white flour and processed grain-products, like white pasta, white bread and white rice. Can you talk me through your approach to processed carbs, and which ones actually have decent nutritional value?
Answer: The US Dietary Guidelines state that half of the grain foods we consume should be whole grain. I had always thought that “half” was a compromised recommendation, thinking health professionals could never get Americans to eat 100% whole grains. Come to learn that is not the reason.
The reason we want half of grains to be whole grains is we want the other half to be grains enriched with B-vitamins and iron. Enrichment happens primarily with refined grains. Foods that are 100% whole grain want to tout they are “100% natural” —with nothing added to them. That means, the nutrients of concern (B-vitamins and iron) are not added. Hence, my message is that processed foods are not always bad for you and there can be unintended consequences to avoiding them (anemia, birth defects).
Rather than categorizing white flour as a bad food, look to see if the whole day’s diet is balanced or unbalanced. You can enjoy refined white flour as part of your balanced diet. It offers helpful nutrients: fuel for your muscles, B-vitamins to convert food into energy, and iron to prevent anemia. While it many lack some nutrients that got lost during processing, refined grains are not “totally worthless.”
But even if they were “worthless,” please keep in mind you can get all the nutrients you need within 1,500 calories from of a variety of wholesome foods. Hence, if you require at least 2,000+ calories/day, you have space for some “worthless” white bread and you will not harm your health.
Keep in mind that no grain, refined or whole, is a powerhouse source of vitamins and minerals compared to nutrient dense vegetables, fruits, proteins and dairy-foods. For example, the tomato sauce on the pasta is far more nutrient-rich than either white or whole wheat pasta. Broccoli offers far more nutrients that dinner rolls, regardless of the rolls being made from white or whole wheat flour. Grains are excellent for muscle fuel, and that’s why they make the best performance-enhancing foundation to every sports-meal.