Whole Grain versus Refined

sarah cuff Gut Health, Nutrient Timing, Performance 3 Comments

I was asked recently if it’s true athletes should limit whole grains during competition and instead choose items such as white rice and white bread. In a nutshell, the answer is yes. But really – it’s more complicated than a simple yes or no. Allow me to explain…

Years ago when was finishing up nutrition school at CSNN I remember one of my volunteer case study ‘clients’ digging his heels in and seriously objecting to my advice to switch out white rice for brown. He was willing to try nearly all my other suggestions but enjoyed his white rice and really didn’t want to give it up. Meanwhile I adamantly argued a healthy diet must ditch the refined grains and include only brown rice and whole grain products such as 100% whole wheat breads.

My knowledge base since that day has grown exponentially… And as such, I’ve changed my stance considerably. Some of you may be shocked and some (such as my aforementioned past case study client) may do a little fist pump thinking, “Oh  yes, I knew it all along!”.

But hang tight – I’m not saying ‘white bread is better than brown bread’. Not at all in fact. It’s decidedly more complicated than that.


In the sports nutrition world, common advice is indeed to avoid whole grains before and during competition. The reason for this is because the fibre contained in whole grains (such as brown rice or 100% whole wheat bread, such as my often previously recommended Ezekiel bread) takes time for the body to process and fully digest. Simply put, when an athlete begins working out with great intensity (as one does in competition or a race) the digestive system effectively ‘shuts down’. That is, the blood flows away from the gastrointestinal tract and instead to the working muscles in order to support best performance. It makes physiological sense. However, if the fibrous whole grains are still sitting somewhere along your digestive tract when you start racing, it means gut rot, GI discomfort and worst case scenario – frantically looking for the nearest washroom or portapotty!

Some athletes have more sensitive intestinal systems than others (you know who you are!) and for these athletes, too much fibre (as well as too much protein or too much fat) in the pre-race days and especially hours can almost certainly spell trouble. For this reason and in this timeframe, some athletes are best off avoiding fibre rich foods such as whole grains and legumes / beans (and sometimes even certain high FODMAP veggies and even fruits – think broccoli, cauliflower, kale, apples, pears…).

In the book Performance Nutrition: Applying the Science of Nutrient Timing, Austin and Seebohar recommend a two or three day fibre taper for athletes who are more susceptible to GI distress or have a sensitive gut. They recommend decreasing fibre intake by 25% each day and focusing more on white starch products and juices. Therefore when you are thinking of ways to avoid possible digestive distress during your race, you might need not only look at race morning but also a day or two (or three!) before race day also.

In my practice, I’ve noticed that white rice does the job nicely for most athletes in the days leading up to race day. It is absorbed easily and quickly into useable fuel (glycogen and glucose), and there are no GI issues during their race. Using easy to digest grains, veggies and fruits (white rice, quick oats, carrots, tomato sauce, bananas, dates…) in all meals and snacks tends to work very well. And while these days I’m loathe to recommend bread in any capacity, I concede that traditionally prepared sourdough bread would also work well here (that is, a bread made with white flour and fermented with a sourdough starter – which is a wild yeast that sees lactobacillus and acetobacillus grow alongside it as it ferments).

Why am I loathe to recommend bread at all you might ask? Ah good question. A few years ago I decided to ditch all processed grain products (including gluten-free products) – such as breads, wraps, buns and muffins, cakes, cookies. My exception was anything I could make from scratch in my kitchen with oats (such as my Power Cookies and Banana Muffins). I felt SO much better overall and also realized that by getting rid of the grains I had more room for leafy greens and veggies on my plate. I was eating more of the rainbow and actually hitting my target veggie intake daily!! I no longer defaulted to wraps or sandwiches or toast (which let’s be honest, never contain that many veggies) because that option was out. I used oatmeal (instant Q’ia oatmeal or baked goods made with oat flour or quick oats) and fruits and tart cherry juice for carbs to fuel my workouts.

The fact is, processed grain products (breads, wraps, buns) offer very little in the way of micronutrients or phytonutrients and tend to displace the more nutrient dense foods (veggies, fruits).

But at the end of the day, an athlete – especially one training every day, sometimes twice a day – needs a good amount of easy to digest carbohydrates. Especially in the (carb loading) days and hours before a race. So I’d add white rice to the mix as well as potatoes (yams were a given and included already of course). Strategically eating these ‘white’ so called high GI products was working well. However, I had a hard time articulating why I was no longer using or recommending very many whole grains and especially whole wheat breads. So I did a good bit of digging and realized there’s been a solid reason all along.

Gut Health

Personally, whole grains have never made me feel great. I’ve always had a sensitive digestive system, but it’s only recently I realized that it was due to intestinal permeability (aka “leaky gut” – a term I actually rather dislike because it sounds so slang I originally dismissed it… but anyways) and overgrowth of ‘bad bacteria’ as well as chronic inflammation caused in a large part from years of antibiotic abuse as well heavy use of artificial sweeteners in my dieting / fitness comp days. While I was clueless then, I know now there a number of things that can severely compromise the health of our gut – including:

  • Heavy use of antibiotics (which kill off all our good gut bacteria, opening the door to overgrowth of ‘bad’ gut bacteria)
  • Chronic use of NSAIDs such as Advil, Motril, Aleve and Celebrex (which damage the mucosal barrier in the small intestine and colon)
  • Stomach acid blockers such as Zantac and Prilosec (which reduce amount of stomach acid which keep bad bacteria out of our intestine, causing overgrowth of ‘bad’ gut bacteria)
  • Artificial sweeteners (which kill good gut bacteria and allow overgrowth of bad ones – one study showed a single Splenda packet can kill 50% of normal intestinal flora)
  • High sugar consumption (which feeds the ‘bad’ gut bacteria to the point of dominance, causing dwindling numbers of good bacteria)
  • Genetically modified foods (glyphosate from Roundup sprayed on GMO wheat, corn, soy and canola ends up in the gut where it can cause damage in multiple ways)

The multiple health issues stemming from my compromised gut health led me initially to believe I’d somehow developed a gluten intolerance (as I suffered from severe IBS, chronic fatigue, recurring infections of many kinds including years of UTI’s, acne and rashes – all of which were either reduced or eliminated on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet). But eventually I realized it was only once I removed all beans and grains including seemingly healthy grains (such as quinoa!!) that I actually was able to thrive long-term. I more less followed what is known as a low FODMAP diet, with modifications (yet interestingly I could also eat some high FODMAP foods with zero issue).


I began to recognize that the Paleo movement (which omits all grains and legumes) seemed to have already recognized what was now beginning to dawn on me – there’s something in these items that just doesn’t do well in those with compromised gut health (aka, a sensitive stomach). These somethings are called antinutrients – or more specifically:

  • Lectins: a protein the body cannot break down which has been shown to cause irritation and damage to the gut in those susceptible; and
  • Phytic acid: an indigestible form of phosphorus that binds to important minerals such as iron, preventing absorption and eventually malnutrition (such as low iron levels in athletes).

However, there has been and still is much debate on whether or not to avoid foods that contain high amounts of these antinutritents, as they are found in otherwise ‘healthy’ foods. That said, for someone with altered gut flora and/or damaged gut lining, you may find properly preparing (such as soaking and pressure cooking) or avoiding certain foods that contain high amounts of lectins and/or phytic acid to be healing and offer relief from symptoms. For some, proper prep or avoidance can literally feel like a life changing miracle.

(Also, if you currently suffer from digestive issues please do NOT google ‘lectin containing foods’ or ‘foods high in phytic acid’ and then start avoiding them all – you’ll be faced with a long list of otherwise healthy foods of which avoidance would most likely be unnecessary.)

Now here’s the interesting thing – white rice and refined grains (such as white flour) have had most of the lectins (those possibly gut-harmful proteins) and phytic acid stripped from them. The majority of the lectins and phytic acid are found in the bran (which is one of the parts that is removed when refining a grain).

From a fibre perspective (for those that argue whole grains contain the fibre we need) – there’s actually better sources of fibre than whole grains (think veggies!). For comparison, let’s look at white versus brown rice, and bring kale into the picture too. One serving (50 grams or a quarter cup raw) of white rice contains 0.5 grams of fibre while brown rice contains 1.8 grams. Meanwhile 1 cup of chopped raw kale offers 2.6 grams of fibre. A full nutrient comparison is outlined below.

Nutrient Profile (per serving) White Rice (50 g / ¼ cup raw) Brown Rice (50 g / ¼ cup raw) Kale (1 cup raw, chopped)
Fibre 0.5 grams 1.8 grams 2.6 grams
Vitamin A 0 0 3032 IU (133% DV)
Thiamin (vitamin B1) 0.04 mg 0.25 mg 0.1 mg
Niacin (vitamin B3) 0.8 mg 3.2 mg 0.7 mg
Vitamin B6 0.08 mg 0.24 mg 0.09 mg
Vitamin C 0 0 59 mg (134% DV)
Vitamin E 0.05 mg 0.3 mg 0.4 mg
Iron 0.4 mg (2% DV) 0.7 mg (4% DV) 1 mg (5% DV)
Magnesium 13 mg (3% DV) 58 mg (17% DV) 21 mg (7% DV)
Potassium 82 mg (1.5% DV) 125 mg (3% DV) 329 mg (9% DV)
Calcium 12 mg 14 mg 100 mg
*source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference

Between a reduction in fibre (takes time / can be hard to digest) as well as a reduction in lectins (gut irritating to those susceptible), you can now more clearly understand why someone with a sensitive digestive system finds that white rice works best, particularly in the days leading up to a race!

Another interesting piece of information – fermentation helps to reduce lectin content by up to 95 percent, according to this study. That’s another reason why sourdough bread is a better option than 100% whole grain for anyone with a sensitive stomach, IBS or digestive issues. It’s very low in both fibre and lectins. Of course, it still contains gluten – so those with celiac or a true gluten intolerance would still need to avoid it.

I don’t know if my case study client from all those years ago had any gut health issues (I don’t remember) or if he simply liked the taste of white rice better. But if I were to sit down with him today, I’d absolutely work white rice into his meal plan. It’s crucial that we truly enjoy the food we’re eating, and just as importantly that the food isn’t aggravating any pre-existing gut condition. Because at the end of the day there is a relatively small difference in the amounts of vitamins and minerals found in white versus brown – as long as you’re eating enough leafy greens (4-6 cups a day) and veggies (another 4-6 servings per day of a wide variety of mixed colours), then I’m hardly concerned over daily consumption of whole grain versus refined. You can see in the above comparison just how much a single cup of kale outshines both brown and white rice. All veggies outshine the grains when it comes to vitamins and minerals.

So as it happens, contrary to my early nutrition days and ways of thinking and especially in the days leading up to a race, refined can sometimes be the better option. For more on how to eat before key workouts and races, check out: Practicing Nutrient Timing (Part 1): Before  – it’s all there. But yes – back to my answer in a nutshell – yes, in the days and hours pre-race, it’s white rice and quick oats (and maybe even sourdough bread!) all the way.

To deliciously healthy food and stronger faster running… Cheers,


Sarah Cuff, R.H.N.
Holistic Sports Nutritionist
Founder Eat 2 Run Sports Nutrition
CSNN Sports Nutrition Instructor

Comments 3

  1. Great read, Sarah! I can identify with so many of the gut issues you’ve suffered with. I’m training for my first ultra this summer, and will definitely try cutting out some FODMAP foods. I’ll have to pull out the recipes from your runners cleanse too!

    1. Post

      Oh so exciting about your first ultra – good luck! For sure, do experiment with FODMAPs – do let me know if you land on what works for you… And yes there’s definitely some good options in the kickstart cleanse. In fact the tart cherry bars are so great pre-run for most runners I’ve found with gut issues!!

  2. Hi
    I’ve just come across your artical.
    Great you’ve found a solution that works for you.
    I’ve just started my journey on lectin free foods and going down a rabbit hole as it’s in everything I eat.
    So you recommended the food map diet even though it contains some lectin foods?

    Thanks Clare 🙂

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