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Why Eat Whole Grains? Understanding Their Health Benefits
Whole grains seem to be having a hard time lately, with gluten blamed by some for major health problems and new grain-free diets popping up every year. So one can easily wonder: why eat whole grains, as recommended by health authorities everywhere.
However, according to Dr Frank Hu, Professor of nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and author of two long-term studies, eating 70g of whole grains per day can reduce your risk of dying by 5%. With each additional serving of 28g, the risk of death from heart disease is reduced by 9%. The study also found that replacing refined grains and red meat with whole grains in equal amounts could potentially increase your life expectancy by 8% to 20%.
There is so much to explain about whole grains that I have split this subject in two. Part 1 covers Why to eat whole grains, and Part 2 discusses how to eat more whole grains.
1. What are whole grains?
Cereals, also called cereals, are the seeds of some grasses, which are grown for food. Here are all the grains you’re likely to find in the store, although not all are in whole-grain form (alternative names in parentheses):
- Buckwheat (or kasha)
- Corn (hominy, popcorn, corn)
- Oats (oatmeal)
- Spelled out
- Wheat (triticale, semolina, seitan, farro, kamut)
- Wild rice
Whole grains vs. refined grains
Whole grains will contain the entire kernel, which is:
- Bran – the outer layer, which contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
- Endosperm – the main part of the grain, which can be ground to make flour. Initially destined to feed the embryo, the germ, as it develops into a new plant. Contains carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals.
- Germ – the smallest component of the kernel, which should germinate if planted. Contains protein, vitamins, minerals, and fat.
100% whole grains will contain all 3 parts of the kernel (bran, endosperm and germ). To obtain fine grains, whole grains are ground to remove the bran and germ. The end result is a smoother, longer-lasting texture. The process removes, however, many nutrients, in particular, fiber.
Whole grains can still be ground, rolled, crushed or broken. As long as the whole kernel is present in the final product, it is still a “whole grain”.
Notes – when we eat refined grains, our bodies actually use nutrients to digest these nutrient-poor foods, leaving us poorer in nutrients than before we ate them!
Note 2 – This is why you may come across the terms “enriched grains” and “enriched grains”. “Enriched grain” means that some of the nutrients lost during the milling stage are replaced, such as vitamins. “Enriched grain” means that some nutrients not originally found in the kernel have been added.
2. Whole grains and fiber
As you can see from the Nutrition info above, one of the main nutrients that need to be removed during the filtering process is fiber. It is the part of plant food that the body cannot digest. As it moves through our digestive system, it absorbs water and helps the body eliminate food waste faster.
Higher consumption is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, as it helps lower blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as stabilize blood sugar. It also fills you up and is an important tool for weight loss and weight management.
There are 2 types of fiber: insoluble and soluble. Good sources of insoluble fiber in grains are wheat and popcorn (minus any added butter or sugar), but also teff, spelled and whole grains. Barley and oats, as well as amaranth, contain soluble fiber. The body needs both in equal measure for optimal health.
The current recommended intake of fiber is between 21 to 25 grams for women and 30 to 38 grams for men. However, most of us only get about half that amount each day, mostly thanks to a highly processed grain diet and low intake of high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables.
Check out my next post on How to eat more whole grains to learn how to increase your fiber intake the easy way.
3. So why eat whole grains?
The higher fiber content of whole grains is associated with reducing your overall risk of death, but that’s not the only reason why eating whole grains is good for our bodies. The bran and germ of grains also contain a variety of phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, as well as protein, all of which play a beneficial role. Let’s list some of the main benefits here:
1. They slow down digestion,
… stabilizing your blood sugar and insulin levels. When ingested, refined grains break down immediately into glucose, just like pure sugar. This causes your blood sugar to spike, then plummet, then, later, cause sugar to drop and cravings.
Whole grains are broken down more slowly, keeping you full longer.
2. They have been found to help with weight management
… by not sending you reaching for the next sugar or starchy ingredient, three servings a day is associated with less belly fat.
3. Therefore, whole grains helps prevent type 2 diabetes
… through healthy weight control and stabilization of your blood sugar levels. Those benefits start with just two servings a day (read my post on How to eat more whole grains to find out what a serving is). This may be due to its high fiber and high magnesium content, both of which are associated with improved carbohydrate metabolism and insulin sensitivity.
4. Whole grains can help lower blood cholesterol,
… oat is the real champion in this category. Its higher soluble fiber content helps with cholesterol elimination, by binding cholesterol and its precursors together in the digestive tract and eliminating them quickly. The antioxidants found in oats also play a role.
5. They can help lower your blood pressure,
… in particular, whole grains with high soluble fiber content, such as barley and oats. Their antioxidants help improve cardiovascular health and reduce inflammation.
6. Many studies on more than 20 types of cancer
… has found a link between eating three servings of whole grains per day and a reduced risk of cancer. This is especially true for gastrointestinal cancers and cancers of the oral cavity, such as the pharynx, esophagus and larynx.
Whole grains offer protective nutrients, such as fiber, antioxidants (especially vitamin E and selenium) and phytochemicals that can help block the growth of cancer cells, block DNA damage and prevent the formation of carcinogens.
And if the benefits of whole grains start at just two servings a day, research has shown that health benefits increase with each additional serving, to reach the 3-4 servings of whole grains recommended per day by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The take-home message: load up on whole grains for optimal health
How to do this? There are many easy ways to identify whole grains in your diet and increase your intake. Read about them in my next article on How to eat more whole grains.
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