An interesting fact of life is that when you’re eating a bowl of cereal, the nonsense on the box becomes some of the most interesting reading material you can find. I’m not sure why this is. The other day I was engrossed in a colorful maze on the back of my kids cereal box when I noticed a banner touting the fact that this very box contained oodles of whole grains. Isn’t that fantastic! This instantly inspired images in my brain of golden wheat blowing in the breeze. I had the impression that these were grains with a general sense of well being. I noticed feeling good about my cereal as I poured another bowl. Then I stopped for a moment. Being skeptical of all advertising done by any company selling me food, I checked the nutrition facts. This got me to thinking about the benefits of whole grain and the fundamentals of magic.
All magic tricks involve some form of distraction. Your attention is masterfully drawn by the illusionist to one hand while the other switches the card, grabs the rabbit, etc. This is an art form that, when done masterfully, can leave an audience aghast at what they missed. It turns out the food industry makes Houdini look like a chump when it comes to sleight of hand. You can check out my prior posts on the way the food industry fools you if you don’t believe me:
I believe the whole grain fad is another in the line of food marketing magic. Before I tell you what I mean by that we have to answer a few questions.
1. What is a whole grain? I’ll use wheat as the example. Wheat grains contain three major parts: The endosperm, the bran, and the germ. The endosperm is mainly starch and carbohydrate. The bran is mostly insoluble fiber and B vitamins. The germ contains the vegetable oils and other vitamins. To process the grain into white flour, the wheat kernels are refined down so that the bran and germ is removed and only the endosperm is used. This creates the yummy high carbohydrate flour we have in most of our foods. When whole grains are used the germ and bran are included which increases the amount of fiber and vitamins present.
2. What is fiber? Fiber is the part of the plants we eat that is not digested. Since it is not digested it stays inside the intestines and keeps the water in the lumen of your guts. This will soften your stool and decrease the amount of time until your excrement hits the toilet. This decreases the risk of colon cancer. Additionally, since fiber is not absorbed it does not add to your calorie counts. The end result is that an ounce of whole grain flour has fewer calories than an ounce of white flour.
3. Aren’t vitamins healthy? See my recent post The Vitamin Myth for more on this topic.
So how does the food industry use this information to manipulate you? Let me be clear that I am not saying that whole grains are not better for your health than processed grains. I’m not saying that you should not eat whole grains whenever possible. My intention is to direct you to the sleight of hand. The food makers are drawing your attention to the whole grains to try to get you to think that the cereal is completely healthy and that you can eat as much as you want. This is the key point. They want you to be distracted by the whole grains so you don’t notice the calories.
The bottom line is that whole grains are better for certain aspects of your health than processed grains but that does not mean you can eat as much as you want. You still have to watch your caloric intake if you want to lose weight. With cereal this is important. It means you probably need a measuring cup to be sure you’re not getting too many calories in. Generally you should choose whole grains over processed because there is less calories per ounce but you still have to watch your intake. You’d be surprised how many calories you can eat even with whole grains.
The cereal producers tout the whole grains to get you to associate their products with good health. When you think you’re getting something ‘healthy’ you’ll be more inclined to eat more of their product even if that means taking in too many calories. If you eat too many whole grains you will gain weight just as if you eat too many processed grains. This is part of decades long work by the cereal industry to tell you that their cereal is “part of a healthy breakfast”. These are carefully chosen and very effective words.
For more on the importance of calorie counting check out these posts: