We’ve been warned: Americans eat too much junk, and we need to start eating more healthfully. This is important across the population spectrum, but at no time does it seem as compelling as when you’re pregnant and eating for two.
One big dietary shift in the couple of years since the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) revised the food pyramid has been the increased focus on the benefits of eating more whole grains. This is particularly true in pregnancy. The higher fiber content makes you feel satisfied longer so you eat less. Fiber also helps ease constipation, a common concern during pregnancy.
The Whole Story About Fiber Diet
People are wising up about their diets and demanding healthier choices from food manufacturers. But we also want foods that taste good and have a pleasant texture. This is complicated by the fact that most of us have grown up on bland, spongy breads, sugary cereals and white rice and pastas. This is what we’re used to and what we like. Thus, the challenge for food manufacturers is to reformulate already familiar foods so they still taste the same but are healthier.
Cynthia Harriman, director of food and nutrition strategies for the Whole Grains Council, explains that the difference between a whole grain and a refined grain is fairly simple. Grains are made up of three parts: the bran, the endosperm and the germ. The outer bran layer is full of fiber, B vitamins, 50 to 80 percent of the grain’s minerals and other phytochemcials. The endosperm is full of complex carbohydrates, protein and smaller amounts of B vitamins. The germ is a source of B vitamins, vitamin E, trace minerals, healthy unsaturated fats and phytochemicals. Refining removes the bran and germ, leaving just the endosperm. When those parts are left intact, it’s a whole grain. Unfortunately, making foods whole that have formerly been refined is not so simple.
“It’s a trickier process than you might think,” says Harriman. “Think of what happens when you take your favorite pasta recipe and decide to make it with whole-wheat pasta. It tastes completely different and most people don’t care for that drastic change. It’s not something that can be done with the touch of a button.”
But it is being done, and the result is healthier choices overall, says nutritionist Judith Levine, author of Helping Your Child Lose Weight the Healthy Way (Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2001). The reason is that whole grain foods are higher in fiber, and fiber is one of the most important components of a healthy diet.
“Fiber has untold benefits,” says Levine. “It helps the gastrointestinal system work more efficiently, thus helping you avoid constipation and disease that researchers believe are caused by a sluggish system. If you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, fiber fills you up and you tend to eat less, but the main point is the overall health of your digestive system. That can’t be overstated.”
Food to Fiber
When a manufacturer “improves” a food by replacing it with something that has more whole grains, it’s definitely a better choice than the original, but it still may not be your best source of fiber. Levine says the consumer has to look at the whole picture, not just the advertising on the front of the box.
“A product may advertise that it’s whole grain, but when you look at the amount of dietary fiber on the label it may be very low,” says Levine. “Also, it may not be a healthy food overall; you have to also take into account the amount of sugar and fat in the product.”
These are Levine’s recommendations for increasing whole grains in your diet:
- Read and compare labels.
- Introduce new foods slowly.
- Mix different fibers, not just grains, but also fruits, vegetables and legumes.
- Eat a variety of grains so you get a variety of fiber.
Grains are available in the supermarket
Most of these grains are available in the supermarket and have directions for use right on the box. They’re also generally quick and easy to prepare. They won’t all be successes, but chances are they won’t all be failures either.
However you approach increasing whole grains in your diet is a good start. Most of us, like Spring, are doing so after our children (and spouses!) are already used to the refined stuff. Changing your diet while you’re pregnant and sticking to it after the baby is born is a great way to start your child off on a lifetime of good nutrition.
By Kelly Burgess