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April 19, 2011

Grains: Too Much of A Good Thing?

The Hood Answer Mom, Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D.

Warm dinner rolls, a bowl of hot buttered pasta and heaps of tortilla chips. If you can't resist them, you're not alone. 

Americans, including me, have an ongoing love affair with grains, and it shows.  We're eating about 45% more calories from grains than we did in 1970, and it may be taking a toll on our health.

Grains are good for you - within reason

Overall, grain foods, such as bread, cereal, rice and pasta are good for you. They contain carbohydrate, fiber, vitamins and minerals. But all grains are not created equal.

The bulk of the calories we get from grains come from highly refined foods, such as white bread, bagels and crackers. Generally speaking, refined grains supply fewer nutrients than whole grains, Many breakfast cereals and other refined grains have iron and other minerals, and vitamins, added to them to replace, and sometimes surpass, what is lost during processing, however.

Additionally, refined grains such muffins, donuts, and cookies, are packed with added fat and sugar.  Excess calories from fat and sugar can easily add up to  extra body fat when not balanced by physical activity.  Some refined grains popular with children, such as orange fish-shaped crackers, are loaded with sodium, too.

As for their effect on long-term health, too many grains may threaten heart healthy by increasing triglycerides (fat) in your blood and lower HDL, or "good cholesterol."

How many refined grains should you eat?

Your daily grain "budget" is based on calorie needs. 

According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, when you follow a 2,000-calorie diet, you need six servings of grains daily, about the equivalent of six slices of bread.  Smaller children have lower calorie needs and require between three and five servings of grains daily.  Very active teens may need more than six servings of grains daily.

The Guidelines also recommend that at least half of your grain intake should be from whole grains, such as whole wheat bread, pasta, and breakfast cereal. For example, if you choose to get all of your grains as bread, at least three slices should be whole grain and no more than three slices should be refined grain, such as white bread.

Get a grip on grains

"Portion distortion" is one of the reasons why we eat too many grains. We just don't know what a serving is, or we deny that we know so we can eat more than the recommended amounts!

Restaurant servings of pasta, bread, and rice are particularly difficult to gauge.  For instance, it's easy to get at the recommended daily grains in a single serving of pasta at many chain restaurants, and that's not counting the roll - or two - you eat before the entrée arrives.

Here are some examples of grain serving sizes from MyPyramid.gov ( http://www.mypyramid.gov ) to help you get a grip on your grain intake.

Food                          Portion

Bagel                          1 mini (about 1 ounce)*

Bread or roll                1 regular slice or roll (about 1 ounce)

English muffins            1/2 muffin

Oatmeal                     1/2 cup cooked or 1 instant packet or 1 ounce dry

Pancakes                     1 pancake (4 1/2" in diameter)

Ready-to-eat cereal     1 cup flakes or rounds

Rice                           1/2 cup cooked or 1 ounce dry

Pasta                          1/2 cup cooked or 1 ounce dry

Tortillas                       1 small (6") 

* Many bagels available in coffee shops weigh at least 3 ounces, and up to 5 ounces, which translates to the equivalent of three to five servings of grains.    


Elizabeth M. Ward

Elizabeth M. Ward

Elizabeth M. Ward, M.S., R.D., is a writer, nutrition consultant, and mother of three. She is the author of several books, including MyPlate for Moms, How to Feed Yourself & Your Family Better and Expect the Best, Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, & After Pregnancy . Ward is also a contributing writer for Muscle & Fitness Hers and Men's Fitness magazines.

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