Getting Teens to Eat More Whole Grains

January 27, 2012

Teens are not consuming enough whole grain foods, says a recent University of Minnesota at St. Paul study. Here's a preview of what's to come in the next issue of Food, Nutrition & Science.

Teens are not consuming enough whole grain foods, says a recent University of Minnesota at St. Paul study. The study, which looked at adolescents (aged 12 to 19 years) in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES, 1999-2004), found that fewer than one third consumed more than .5 whole grain ounce equivalents per day. Results were published in the January 2012 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Whole grain intake has been associated with improved chronic disease risk factors and weight status in adults, but in the past, these studies have been limited in adolescents. Dr. Marla Reicks, study author, says that having a better understanding of the benefits of eating whole grain foods during adolescence can help health professionals to better promote an increased intake in that population.

According to the study, most teens are not eating the recommended three servings a day of whole grains. And about half of boys (52%) and girls (50%) did not consume any whole grains on the day their intake was measured. About one third of boys (31%) and one fourth of girls (27%) consumed .5-ounce equivalents per day.

Consumption of whole grains was favorably associated with intake of dietary fiber and total folate. Also, higher whole grains intake was associated with lower fasting insulin levels, potentially reducing risk factors for type 2 diabetes. C-peptide levels were lower in girls eating more whole grains compared to those with no or low intake as well. Homocysteine, a risk factor for heart disease, was lower in boys who had higher whole grain intakes compared to those who ate none or had a low intake.

Ultimately, the study found that whole grain intake was not associated with body mass index in young people. However, it was related to positive nutrient profiles and chronic disease risk factors. In other words, this study provides some evidence pointing toward the encouragement of upping whole grain intake in adolescents to the recommended levels.

“We are not sure if teens aren’t getting the message to consume more whole grains or if barriers to consumption are getting in the way of consuming more whole grains,” says Reicks. “Several studies have shown that eating habits during adolescence persist into early adulthood, therefore improving intake at this age will be beneficial in maintaining an adequate intake of whole grains as an adult. We feel that what we know about promotion of healthy foods among adolescents would probably also apply to the promotion of whole grain foods.”

The most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, released in January 2011, recommend that all adults eat at least half their grains as whole grains – that's at least three to five servings of whole grains. Even children need two to three servings or more.

According to the Whole Grains Council, consumption lags far behind these recommendations. For example, the average American eats less than one daily serving of whole grains, and some studies show that over 40% of Americans never eat whole grains at all.

Whole grains – or foods made from them – contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. This definition means that 100% of the original kernel – all of the bran, germ, and endosperm – must be present to qualify as a whole grain. Amaranth, barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, oats, quinoa, rice (wild, brown and colored), rye, sorghum, teff, triticale, wheat and kamut are all considered whole grains.

“We need to make whole grain foods more available in homes, schools and restaurants to help teens meet the recommendations. Health professionals and retailers can focus on availability, and make tasty whole grain foods available as substitutes for refined grain foods,” adds Reicks.