Learn about the health benefits of whole grains, why they are important, and how to get them in your diet every day with these helpful tips.
Whole grains are everywhere—in breakfast cereals, breads, side dishes like grain and pasta dishes, soups, snacks, and baked goods. With such availability and the good news about their health benefits, you’d think we’d all be meeting our recommendation for three servings of whole grains a day. Sadly, we’re a long way off. Consumers feel they are getting more whole grains than they really are. Surveys find that 60 percent respond that they feel like they are getting enough whole grains, but 95 percent are not. This is a huge gap for Americans.
When whole grains are refined, there is only a fraction of the phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that there is in the whole grain,” reports Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. Kris-Etherton summarizes the current body of research to include the following benefits from moderate (about three servings per day) whole grains intake.
Whole grain bonus. By missing your mark for whole grains, you’re losing out on an opportunity to gain many health rewards linked with these foods. “There are lots of beneficial compounds in whole grains; they are a nutrient-dense power house. When whole grains are refined, there is only a fraction of the phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals that there is in the whole grain,” reports Penny Kris-Etherton, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. Kris-Etherton summarizes the current body of research to include the following benefits from moderate (about three servings per day) whole grains intake:
- Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease due to effects such as decreased risk of hypertension, decreased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, and improved blood vessel function.
- Decreased risk of stroke.
- Decreased risk of obesity due to lower body mass index and waist circumference.
- Decreased risk of metabolic syndrome, a cluster of factors that increases your risk for coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
- Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Decreased risk of colorectal cancer.
- Decreased risk of total mortality.
Meeting your whole grains gap. According to Harris, there are many barriers to eating more whole grains, including price, taste, convenience—and confusion—about which products are good sources of whole grains. It can be difficult to sift out the true whole grain stars from the “fakes” that contain only a sprinkling of whole grains or even artificial coloring. Though we have a variety of whole grain options—from breakfast cereals to breads—most of the grains we consume today are still refined.
Spotting whole grains. A whole grain contains the entire grain seed—bran, germ and endosperm; a refined grain has been milled to remove the nutrient-rich bran and germ. The easiest way to spot a whole grain food is to look for 100 percent of the grain listed on the ingredient list to be whole grain. For example, the only grain in a bag of bulgur is whole grain bulgur. But many foods, such as breads, crackers, and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, are made with a combination of whole and refined grains, making it difficult to evaluate its whole grain status. If a food contains 51 percent of the total weight (or eight total grams) as whole grain, it counts as a half-serving and can be a substantial source of whole grains in your diet.
In many cases, it’s tough to calculate how much whole grain is in a product by scanning the ingredient list. That’s why the Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit organization working to increase whole grains consumption, developed the Whole Grain Stamp program. Manufacturers can place on food packages a “100% Whole Grain Stamp,” signifying a product provides one serving of whole grains (16 grams) in each serving, or a “Basic Whole Grain Stamp,” indicating a product provides a half-serving (8 grams per serving). These stamps, found on more than 4,700 products in 21 countries, can help you choose whole grain products with confidence.
Think beyond wheat. In order to dish up three servings of whole grains every day, you’re going to have to think outside the whole wheat box. There are so many interesting ways to get your whole grains! While whole wheat bread, rolls and tortillas are great whole grain offerings, don’t stop there. Try oatmeal for breakfast, snack on popcorn, and switch to brown rice. One winning strategy is to plug in your rice cooker and cook up a different whole grain every night of the week. Ancient grains like amaranth, barley, quinoa, millet, teff, farro, kamut, and bulgur can be cooked with water, according to package directions (cooking directions are also available at wholegrainscouncil.org), and served in place of rice, pasta or potatoes. These crunchy, nutty grains also can be tossed into salads, stir-fried with vegetables, and stirred into soups and casseroles.
It’s time to celebrate whole grains consumption as the norm. After all, before refined grains became the standard for modern society, humans relied upon old-fashioned whole grains for thousands of years. Now we’ve come full circle to a new appreciation for whole grains—celebrity chefs feature farro as a menu highlight and slick fast food ads showcase hearty, whole grain breads for sandwiches. It may be that the reign of doughy white bread is finally over.
Whole grains lineup
- Amaranth. Try this tiny seed as a cooked breakfast cereal or polenta-like side dish.
- Barley. Add these kernels to soups and stews, even salads.
- Buckwheat. This nutty flour is excellent in pancakes.
- Corn (cornmeal, popcorn). Enjoy cornbread with meals and popcorn as a snack.
- Millet. This tiny grain makes a great alternative to rice.
- Oats. Use in hot cereals, granolas and baked goods.
- Quinoa. A delicious twist on the side dish.
- Rice, brown, colored, wild. Ban white rice in favor of these flavorful varieties.
- Rye. Try robust rye in breads.
- Sorghum. Cook into porridge or use the flour in baked goods.
- Teff. This miniscule grain is good as cooked cereal or as flour in bread.
- Triticale. A hybrid of rye and wheat, it’s excellent in baked goods.
- Wheat (spelt, emmer, farro, einkorn, Kamut, durum, bulgur, cracked wheat, and wheat berries). Try cooking wheat kernels as a crunchy side dish.
I love to cook up whole grains in my Instant Pot. Get your own with my discount code here.
Try some of my favorite plant-based whole grain recipes:
Quinoa Corn Bean Chowder
Stir-Fried Thai Tofu Sorghum Bowl
Chana Masala with Brown Rice
Orange-Peanut Tempeh with Brown Rice
Mandarin Quinoa and Kale Bowl
Image: Tuscan Asparagus Fennel Farro Salad, Sharon Palmer, MSFS, RDN
This post may contain affiliate links. For more information, click here.