Is whole wheat that much healthier than white?

In Guyana we consume a lot of flour mostly in the forms of bread and roti. These are staples at breakfast and sometimes at dinner time. During a recent visit to an ital (vegan) hot spot in the city, I told the server that I felt like eating roti, pumpkin and ‘one-foot’.

She asked, “White or whole wheat”? And the response, from a health-conscious young man like myself, was, “whole wheat”.

But is whole wheat that much better than white? Let’s take a look. The results may surprise you.

In nature, wheat grains are brown because the bran (or outer layer) is brown. When the bran layer is intact, it contains the endosperm and the germ, though only the bran and germ have true nutritional benefit. To get white flour (and hence white bread), wheat grains are stripped of their bran and germ, leaving only the nutrient-poor endosperm.

Wheat bread has more fibre than white bread, which is why health nuts love it. Fibre is important to both cardiovascular (it lowers cholesterol) and gastrointestinal (it keeps things moving) health, and it serves to slow down digestion of the carbohydrates imparting longer-lasting energy throughout the day, and throughout a workout. This is important to those who are concerned about maintaining steady insulin levels, as the slower the carbohydrates are digested, the more level the insulin response.

White bread, on the other hand, is a fast-digesting carbohydrate, which causes insulin levels to spike, which, during non-training times, causes energy levels to crash and leads to increased fat storage.

But even with all that in mind, there is no clear winner between whole wheat and white for the better bread or roti.

The reason is that there are times in a day when a massive insulin spike is required to amplify muscle gains, and that’s when whole wheat bread just won’t do. I’m sure you’ve realized that we’re talking about post-workout nutrition — the fact is that a spoon of jelly on white bread is one of the best ways to get fast carbs after a session pumping iron.

If you need reminding, insulin is an anabolic hormone; the more you have after tearing muscle apart, the more muscle you’ll rebuild. A day’s diet that includes a few slices of white bread is also extremely effective at refilling glycogen stores (and thereby rebooting your metabolism) after a week or so of low-carb dieting.

So, after workouts, white is right. At all other times of the day, you can’t beat whole wheat. Just make sure the label says whole wheat, not multigrain or plain wheat, and that it contains whole-wheat flour (not enriched white flour).

Flour power

This table compares some of the nutrient values found in a slice of white bread and one of whole-wheat bread.

Calories | White Bread: 6g | Wheat Bread: 6g

Protein | White Bread: 2g |Wheat Bread: 3g

Carbs | White Bread: 13g | Wheat Bread: 13g

Total fat | White Bread: 1g | Wheat Bread: 1g

Fibre | White Bread: 1g | Wheat Bread: 2g

Calcium | White Bread: 39mg | Wheat Bread: 20mg

Iron | White Bread: 1mg | Wheat Bread: 1mg

Magnesium | White Bread: 6mg | Wheat Bread: 24mg

Phosphorus | White Bread: 26mg | Wheat Bread: 64mg

Potassium | White Bread: 26mg | Wheat Bread: 71mg

Selenium | White Bread: 4-5mcg | Wheat Bread: 10mcg

Sodium | White Bread: 177mg | Wheat Bread: 148mg

Folate | White Bread: 29mcg | Wheat Bread: 14mcg

Note: g = grammes, mg = milligrammes, mcg = microgrammes

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