YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Rethinking Our Daily Bread

As obesity and diabetes soar, some U.S. nutritionists and researchers back off from pushing pasta and rice. The emphasis is on vegetables and fruits.


Lawrence Elgert thought he had a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle. He went to the gym for cardio and weight training workouts three times a week. Just about every day, he ate what he thought was a hearty breakfast: oatmeal, to which he would add flaxseed and barley, and sometimes whole-grain toast as well.

But the 41-year-old was worried about his health, particularly because his mother has Type 2 diabetes. He had some of the risk factors for diabetes as well. "I had this potbelly I couldn't get rid of," said Elgert, of Tucson. "I was puzzled that I couldn't lose the weight."

About a year ago, following the advice of a nutritional counselor, Elgert drastically cut back on the grains in his diet and added more vegetables and fruit. These days his breakfast is likely to be hard-boiled eggs, stir-fried vegetables and berries. He doesn't eat bread, though he eats the rice in sushi and an occasional serving of pasta.

On his new diet, Elgert's potbelly started to recede in a matter of weeks. He lost 12 pounds effortlessly and muses on the irony that he had to change his "healthy" diet to feel better: "Isn't it funny? I wasn't eating Cap'n Crunch. I thought I was doing good."

For more than a decade, health-conscious consumers such as Elgert have been chowing down on as many low-fat oatmeal pancakes and pieces of 12-grain bread as they could. They were motivated by a steady drumbeat of good-news studies that found that whole grains that include the bran, the germ and the endosperm protect against a number of diseases and the undeniable fact that valuable nutrients and fiber disappear when grains are refined.

But a growing number of nutritionists, obesity researchers and consumers, annoyed by their seemingly intractable extra pounds, are taking a second look at once sacrosanct whole grains. In this age of soaring rates of Type 2 diabetes and obesity, says Shari Lieberman, a nutritionist from Connecticut's University of Bridgeport and author of "Dare to Lose," "We all need to limit our consumption of grains--even whole grains."

Susan Bowerman, assistant director of the Center for Human Nutrition at UCLA, says the backlash against whole grains is yet another nutritional pendulum swing, this time away from fat-phobic, whole grain-centric diets that did not solve many of their adherents' weight problems: "People forgot that fat-free does not mean calorie-free."

Better Carbohydrates

The move away from whole grains is not a 180-degree turn from the mantra "the whiter the bread the sooner you're dead." In other words, no one's recommending that Americans ditch whole-grain bread in favor of Wonder Bread.

Instead, an increasingly vocal group of nutrition experts is telling Americans to load up on vegetables and fruits rather than whole grains because you get more bang for your carbohydrate calories.

Bowerman, coauthor of the book "What Color Is Your Diet?," which recommends seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day, says such a diet delivers--with relatively few calories--phytochemicals that reduce the risk of a number of diseases, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

It's not just the calories in grains that are a concern. Some researchers believe that people who have trouble controlling their weight should eat carbohydrates that fall on the low end of the glycemic index, a method of calculating how quickly a food can spike blood sugar.

A diet emphasizing foods that rank high on the glycemic index, such as many grain-based foods, can lead to high levels of the "hunger hormone," insulin.

In a 1999 study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics medical journal Pediatrics, Dr. David Ludwig, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and director of the obesity program at Children's Hospital Boston, found that obese children downed 81% more calories after high-glycemic meals that contained instant oatmeal than they did after vegetable omelet and fruit meals designed to keep blood sugar levels low. The meals contained the same number of calories. "From a hormonal standpoint, all calories are not alike," says Ludwig.

Ludwig is one of several critics of the USDA's Food Pyramid, which is a fixture in schools. Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been recommending a relatively modest three servings of whole grains a day since 1993, its Food Pyramid recommends a hefty six-to-11 servings of grains a day and doesn't distinguish between whole grains and nutritionally inferior refined grains.

Ludwig's alternative, the Low Glycemic Index Pyramid, banishes high-glycemic, refined grains to the least-often-consumed tip of the pyramid. Whole grains, whose glycemic index is generally lower than their refined counterparts because fiber slows their absorption, are one tier down from the top.

Los Angeles Times Articles