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Wheat is the most important cereal crop in the world and ubiquitous in the food culture of North America and many other regions of the world.
Bread, pasta, bagels, crackers, cakes, and muffins just begin to describe the list of foods made with this grain. Wheat, in its natural unrefined state, features a host of important nutrients. Therefore, to receive benefit from the wholesomeness of wheat it is important to choose wheat products made from whole wheat flour rather than those that are refined and stripped of their natural goodness.
The health benefits of wheat depend entirely on the form in which you eat it. These benefits will be few if you select wheat that has been processed into 60% extraction, bleached white flour. 60% extraction—the standard for most wheat products in the United States, including breads, noodles and pastas, baked goods like rolls or biscuits, and cookies—means that 40% of the original wheat grain was removed, and only 60% is left. Unfortunately, the 40% that gets removed includes the bran and the germ of the wheat grain—its most nutrient-rich parts. In the process of making 60% extraction flour, over half of the vitamin B1, B2, B3, E, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and fiber are lost.
Since 1941, laws in the United States have required "enrichment" of processed wheat flour with vitamins B1, B2, B3 and iron in response to the problems created by 60% extraction. Since not nearly as much of these B vitamins and iron are replaced as are removed from 60% extraction flour, "enriched" seems an odd word to describe this process.
If you select 100% whole wheat products, however, the bran and the germ of the wheat will remain in your meals, and the health benefits will be impressive! Our food ranking qualified whole wheat (in its original non-enriched form) as a very good source of dietary fiber and manganese, and as a good source of magnesium.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition underscores the importance of choosing whole rather than refined wheat to maintain a healthy body weight. In this Harvard Medical School / Brigham and Women's Hospital study, which collected data on over 74,000 female nurses aged 38-63 years over a 12 year period, weight gain was inversely associated with the intake of high-fiber, whole-grain foods, such as whole wheat, but positively related to the intake of refined-grain foods, such as products made from refined wheat. Not only did women who consumed more whole grains consistently weigh less than those who ate less of these fiber-rich foods, but those consuming the most dietary fiber from whole grains were 49% less likely to gain weight compared to those eating foods made from refined grains.
First we were told, "Don't eat fat, and you'll stay trim." After following this advice only to see obesity expand to never before seen proportions, we're told by the food gurus, "Eating fat is fine. Shun carbohydrates to stay slim."
In our opinion, neither piece of dietary advice is complete, accurate or likely to help us stay slim or healthy. Just as different kinds of fats have different effects in our bodies (e.g., saturated and trans fats are linked to increased risk for cardiovascular disease while omega-3 fats decrease cardiovascular disease risk), some carbohydrates, such as whole grains, are healthful while others, such as refined grains and the foods made from them, are not.
Whole grains are a rich source of magnesium, a mineral that acts as a co-factor for more than 300 enzymes, including enzymes involved in the body's use of glucose and insulin secretion