We all know, but still do not attach enough importance to the specific benefits of fibre, vitamins, minerals and other phyto-nutrients that are naturally, and abundantly present in wholegrain cereals and pulses. Science tells us that a diet comprising multiple wholegrains immediately improves digestion, lowers bad cholesterol levels in blood, is better for the liver, boosts immunity, keeps blood glucose levels stable and cuts the risk of most non-communicable diseases, thereby increasing our lifespan.
We also prefer to think that the typical South Indian diet, in its current form, is healthy enough.
Take a typical day's breakfast – idlis, dosas or pongal – made from white rice or take rava upma, all doused with oil or even ghee. Lunch - a significant quantity of white rice, sambar, rasam or curry. Dal or pulses may not even feature in a meal. A small serving of vegetables, if any, maybe a salad and a bit of buttermilk or curd (not necessarily low fat) are the other constituents.
At snack time, we have murukku, mixture or even biscuits. Dinner can be more or less the same as lunch or just consist of tiffin items and may not contain a regular protein dish. So, refined grains are not just a part of our daily diet – they are a predominant component.
White rice and other refined grains are the root of our nation’s health evils. One of the biggest myths is that we need them. Until a couple of generations ago, our ancestors ate hand-pounded, unpolished rice apart from other wholegrains (almost nothing was highly polished or refined, not even sugar). They were intensely active and lived a long healthy life.
Eating refined grains including white rice everyday can lead to:
- Poor digestion and even constipation. Development of piles and hernia.
- Insulin resistance – cells do not respond to insulin, leading to Diabetes.
- A lack of essential nutrients for basic body processes.
- A sluggish metabolism leading to weight gain, especially around the abdomen. This, in turn, leads to increased risk for a host of problems including heart disease.
- Syndrome X or the Metabolic Syndrome – an outcome of this syndrome is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, abnormal blood lipids and high uric acid levels in blood – affecting the liver, heart and kidney.
- Low energy levels, higher frequency of food cravings and addictions and binging, leading to more weight gain.
Going wholegrain means replacing white rice, maida, rava, white bread and other refined carbohydrate foods with wholegrain ones. The foods you need to avoid are white rice, rava, parboiled white rice (in dosas), instant noodles, most biscuits, naans, kulchas and rumali rotis. Bakery products are also mostly made with maida. Check food labels and remember that ‘wheat flour’ is still maida.
Examples of wholegrains to start using are millets (ragi, thinai, samai, kambu), brown and red rice, whole wheat, oats and quinoa. Replacing your regular dals with whole grams / pulses or split ones with skin is the next step.
Consuming partial measures of wholegrains on a weekly basis is now the norm in many households. However, nothing less than switching over to wholegrains on a daily basis will have long-term benefits for your family. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid refined grains for the rest of your life – just use them infrequently, once in a fortnight or in a month, cooked healthily and in small quantities, along with other nutritious foods. Try this path and you will see immediate results. You will be ensured of long-term benefits.
Smitha Suresh is a Chennai-based nutritionist experienced in clinical fitness and corporate nutrition counselling.