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Most health experts agree that prioritizing whole grains is a key element of a healthy dietary pattern. Aim for at least three servings of whole grains each day. One serving of whole grains is equivalent to 16 grams (a little more than half an ounce). While it’s easy to see if foods are authentic whole grains when you’re eating plain, intact grains, such as barley, oats, quinoa, and brown rice, it can be more difficult to determine if food products, such as breads, cereals, and crackers, are made with whole grains.
One way to identify whole-grain food products is to read the ingredients list; if the first ingredient on the list is a whole grain (for example, whole-wheat flour, oats), the food contains whole grains. Another option is to look on the product’s package for a Whole Grain Stamp from the Whole Grains Council. However, the absence of a Whole Grain Stamp doesn’t mean that the food does not contain whole grains. Another helpful clue is the fiber content of the food; whole-grain foods often contain 3 or more grams of fiber per serving, while refined-grain foods often contain 1 or 0 grams of fiber.
While all whole grains are nutrient-rich and deserve inclusion in your eating plan, the following whole grains have earned superfoods status due to their exceptional nutrition profiles.
Wheat—the “mother grain” of Western civilization—has been under attack in recent years. Due to the rise in awareness and prevalence of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, gluten-free diets, which contain no wheat, have become increasingly popular. However, going gluten-free has become somewhat of a craze. Many people who do not have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are avoiding wheat because they believe that a gluten-free diet is healthier than a diet that contains gluten. However, there is no research that supports the notion that wheat is inherently unhealthy, and some studies suggest that gluten-free diets may be low in important nutrients and fiber, as well as being higher in added sugar and salt.
When it comes to wheat, the key to healthy eating is to ensure that most of the wheat-based foods you select are made from whole wheat. There are many varieties and forms of whole wheat, such as bulgur, farro, spelt, and wheat berries, all of which can be healthful additions to your diet.
Wheat is rich in many nutrients; one serving (one-quarter cup dry or about one-half cup cooked) contains 6 grams of protein, 6 grams of fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, iron, and selenium. Polyphenols, phytochemicals found in wheat, have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
The research-based health benefits of consuming whole grains are well established; they include reducing the risk of stroke by 30 to 36 percent, type 2 diabetes by 21 to 30 percent, and heart disease by 25 to 28 percent, as well as better weight maintenance and blood pressure levels.
When choosing wheat-based products, select breads, crackers, and baked goods made with whole-wheat flour. (Check the ingredients list to confirm that whole-wheat flour is the first ingredient.) In addition, you can simmer whole-wheat kernels, such as wheat berries, farro, bulgur, couscous, or freekeh, and include them in side dishes, soups, casseroles, veggie burgers, and salads.
Rice is one of the most important foods in the world—it provides about half the calories for up to half of the world’s population. In the U.S., consumption of this gluten-free grain has doubled over the past three decades to more than 25 pounds per person per year.
There are many varieties of rice—an estimated 40,000—and many types of rice classified by size (long-, medium-, and short-grain). In addition, rice comes in many shades, such as red, purple, and black—all of which are considered whole grains.
Once the inedible hull is removed from a rice kernel, what remains is brown rice, which is a whole grain. If the rice is milled further and the bran and germ are removed, what remains is white, refined rice. Brown long-grain rice has four times the fiber of white long-grain rice, and it has a higher mineral, vitamin, and phytonutrient content as well. Most of the phytochemicals in rice are concentrated in the outer bran covering; studies show that red, purple, and black rice have even higher levels of bioactive plant compounds than brown rice.
A one-half cup serving of cooked brown rice provides protein (3 grams), fiber (2 grams), and more than 15 vitamins and minerals, including magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, thiamin, and manganese.
Studies have shown that whole-grain rice intake may help cut diabetes risk, lower cholesterol levels, and help maintain a healthy weight. Research also has shown that people who eat rice regularly have healthier diets overall due to higher intakes of vegetables, legumes, and fruits and lower consumption of total fat, saturated fat, and added sugars.
Oats are almost always consumed in their whole form, with their bran and germ intact. Steel-cut oats are whole oat kernels (also called groats) sliced once or twice into smaller kernels. Old-fashioned oats have been steamed and flattened, which reduces cooking time but preserves all of the nutrients.
Oats are packed with nutrients: One serving (one-quarter cup uncooked) of oats contains 4 grams of fiber and 7 grams of protein, along with iron, thiamin, manganese, and magnesium. Oats also are very high in a type of fiber called beta-glucan, which has been linked to heart health and cancer protection, and oats contain phytochemicals that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Oats are probably best known for their power to reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, which helps lower the risk of heart disease. In fact, studies show that a daily serving of oatmeal can reduce elevated levels of total cholesterol by as much as 23 percent. In addition, oats have been found to increase satiety (the feeling of fullness), lower blood pressure and blood glucose levels, promote regular bowel movements, and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. And, they may even help battle weight gain because of their satiating effects.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) may have gained newfound popularity in the 21st century, but it actually dates back thousands of years, when it was an important staple crop and sacred food for the Incans in Peru and Bolivia.
Quinoa contains a variety of key nutrients: 4 grams of high-quality protein (it is one of the few plant foods that provides all of the essential amino acids your body needs), 5 grams of fiber, and several B vitamins, iron, magnesium, zinc, and copper.
While quinoa is relatively new to the world of nutrition research, some studies document its potential antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits and its role in protecting against diabetes and increasing satiety. What’s more, quinoa is a gluten-free grain, making it a suitable, nutrient-dense alternative for people who must avoid gluten because of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Quinoa is available in shades of ivory, red, and black, and cooks in just 15 minutes. Simmer quinoa in water or broth to make a fluffy grain porridge, or stir cooked quinoa into soups, stuffing, and casseroles. Quinoa flour also can be used as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour.
Barley is a nutrient-rich grain protected by a tight-fitting, inedible hull. Whole-grain forms include “hulled barley,” which has had the hull removed in a process that causes minimal bran loss, and “hulless barley,” which is a different variety of barley that grows without a tight hull. “Pearled barley” has lost some or all of its bran when its hull is removed, but it still has a fairly high fiber content. Barley flakes are similar in appearance to rolled oats; they’re made by steaming the barley kernels and then rolling and drying them. Barley flakes are not considered a whole grain if they are made from pearled barley.
Hulled barley provides 8 grams of fiber per serving (about one-half cup cooked), which is higher than most other whole grains, and 6 grams of protein per serving. Barley contains thiamin, niacin, iron, magnesium, and selenium, and it is a good source of the fiber beta-glucan. Hulled barley’s documented health benefits include reduced blood pressure, blood glucose, and LDL cholesterol levels.
Enjoy barley in soups and casseroles or substitute it for rice in pilaf and risotto recipes. Or, try barley topped with cinnamon, fruit, and nuts for breakfast.
Millet is growing in popularity in the U.S. as people become more interested in healthful whole grains that are gluten-free.
These small, beige grains provide 3 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber per serving, as well as several vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Currently, there is limited research documenting specific health benefits of millet, but studies point to its potential for blood glucose and cholesterol control.
Millet can be eaten as a simple porridge, as is common in Africa, or in roti, a traditional Indian bread made with ground millet. Millet can be steamed and served as an accompaniment to stir-fries or curries, stirred into salads, shaped into loaves and cakes, and added to baked goods.
Although teff is fairly new to American cuisine, it is the principal source of nutrition for an estimated two-thirds of Ethiopians. It’s also a popular foodstuff in other parts of Africa because of its nutrient-dense profile and easy cultivation.
This grain is particularly rich in calcium, providing 10 percent of the recommended daily intake in a one-half cup cooked serving, as well as vitamin B6, and zinc, protein (7 grams), and fiber (4 grams). It’s also high in resistant starch, a type of fiber that may help with blood glucose management, weight control, and digestive health.
This mild-flavored grain is very versatile. While its most famous use is in the Ethiopian fermented flatbread, injera, teff also may be served as a breakfast porridge and used in side dishes, stuffings, veggie burgers, and grain salads. And, teff flour is becoming increasingly popular, since it is a gluten-free alternative that can be used in recipes for breads, muffins, pancakes, waffles, and cookies.
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