Remember that old food pyramid we learned in school? It was an old graphic that started with grains at the base and fats, oils and sweets at the top. Even though we all know what it looks like, it was almost impossible to understand and translate into just what we should be eating each day. In 2011, the USDA ditched the pyramid for a simple plate, cut into fractions showing how much of each food type Americans should consume each day.
The old food pyramid and new food plate graphics, courtesy of the USDA.
But there’s still one issue – the new graphic doesn’t specify exactly what foods we should eat in each category. Nutrition experts argue over which types of breads, oats and pastas are best for a healthy diet.
White Bread vs Wheat Bread
Nutritionists agree that wheat bread is the better choice, but the problem is that “wheat bread” is a still a vague term. The most important factor in wheat bread is that it’s 100 percent “whole grain.” At the grocery store, look at the ingredients label on the back of the bag. If you see the word “enriched,” put it back on the shelf. That means that nutrients were added after the fact, and the anti-nutritious qualities of white bread are still in the loaf.
True whole grain bread will almost always say “100% Whole Grain” on the label, but rye, pumpernickel and gluten-free are among the most healthy types.
White Rice vs Brown Rice
The battle between white and brown is a different matter concerning rice. While wheat bread is the obvious winner over white, brown rice isn’t such a clear solution. The difference between white and brown rice is really just the bran, or fiber, that comes with brown rice and gives it its color. It’s not that more fiber is bad, but that if you’re eating the right amount of fruits and vegetables, you don’t need the extra fiber from brown rice. This is one of those battle where, if you prefer white rice, go ahead and have it.
When choosing rice at the store, pick “long grain” for more nutrients, but the color is much less important.
The Other Grains
Concerning oats and cereals, the same rules from bread apply here. “Steel cut” oats are healthier than instant but take longer to cook because they need to be boiled. A handy trick is to boil a week’s worth of steel cut oats on Sunday and freeze individual portions in plastic ware for later.
Brand-name cereals do offer whole grain options. Honey Nut Cheerios, Shredded Wheat and Fiber One Honey Clusters are whole wheat brands. But limit your portions as these foods also contain high fructose corn syrup to sweeten the flavor.
The Paleo Way
There’s an alternative to the whole debate behind grains — ditch them altogether. The Paleolithic, or “Paleo,” diet is a growing fad that says no to starchy carbohydrates and yes to meats, vegetables, fruits, fats and oils. The argument behind the eating style is that while carbohydrates deliver energy, they also raise your insulin response to convert those carbs to sugar, which then store as fat. The fats from meats and oils, however, deliver a slow-burning energy and keep the body feeling full after a meal.
Whether you go Paleo or start the transition towards healthier grains, the most important thing is to start today. Thirty, 40 or 50 years from now when you’re kicking back at a senior living community, you want to enjoy the benefits of a lifelong healthy diet, not making up for lost ground in your old age. If you have any concerns about an extreme diet change, consult your physician before making any decisions.