What Are Whole Grains? 6 Tips for Replacing Refined Grains With Nutritious Alternatives

A diet that includes whole grains benefits a wide range of health conditions and might help you to live longer, according to a new study. But what are whole grains?

Examples of whole grains

What are whole grains, and where do we find them? Easy sources include whole-wheat bread, rolled oats, flax seeds, and more.

© Vladislav Nosik | Dreamstime

There are many reasons why a diet that includes whole grains benefits your health and might help you live longer. For people who can’t imagine cutting carbohydrates and grains out of their diet completely, whole grains in moderation can be delicious, healthy options to mix up meals. But these days, you can find the label “whole grain” almost everywhere. This overused label can be confusing. Is it really a marker of a healthy product? How do you know which products actually contain true, healthy whole grains and which are just posing as health foods? In short, what are whole grains, really?

Health Benefits of Whole Grains

A diet with whole grains benefits health by improving cholesterol levels, lipid metabolism, BMI, blood sugar regulation, and immunity.[1,2] Whole grain intake is associated with reduced risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer, like colon cancer.[1-4] Refined grains, on the other hand, can be very detrimental to your health in many ways.

The various protective effects of whole grains might help you to live longer, according to a new study published this March, following over 70,000 women and over 40,000 men from the 1980s to 2010. The results showed that higher whole grain intake was associated with reduced mortality rates (especially those due to cardiovascular disease) in these men and women.[5]

Including Whole Grains in Your Diet

Just because whole grains offer health benefits doesn’t mean your diet should be dominated by these foods. Instead, whole grains should be used to replace less healthy options. You do not want to add whole grains into your diet in addition to refined grains; you want to use them as healthier alternatives.

In general, keep whole grains to a small portion of your diet. Fruits and vegetables should take the starring role on your plate, along with high-quality proteins and healthy fats. Carbohydrates, including whole grains, should be eaten in moderation.

If you’re used to eating lots of carbohydrate-heavy, refined grain products, it might take you a while to get used to whole-grain alternatives, which can have a different texture and flavor. At first, try replacing one refined grain in your diet at a time with a healthier, more wholesome whole grain.

Here are some tips to get you started:

  1. Replace your regular breakfast cereal with oatmeal.
  2. Purchase buckwheat, rye, or other true whole-grain breads from a local bakery.
  3. Try side dishes like quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, or farro at dinnertime.
  4. Substitute white pasta with whole-grain options like brown rice pasta, quinoa pasta, or others.
  5. Choose a whole-grain cracker or popcorn for a snack.
  6. Branch out. Whole wheat is only one whole grain option. Try products made with quinoa, sorghum, brown rice, amaranth, and more—you might be pleasantly surprised and find a new favorite! Plus, these options will give you a variety of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals as well.

Why Are Whole Grains Good for You?

Whole grains are rich in fiber, which has numerous protective effects in the body, including lowering blood pressure, stabilizing blood sugar, and fighting cancer. To read more about the importance of fiber in the diet, read click here.

Recent studies have also found that the benefits of whole grains might have to do with a link between whole grain intake and the microbiome (the population of healthy bacteria in our bodies). Whole grain consumption can increase the microbial diversity in our digestive systems, which can help our metabolism, enhance our immune system, and fight inflammation.[2,6,7]

What Are Whole Grains, and Which Kinds Are Best?

True whole grains contain three parts: the fiber-rich bran, the endosperm, and the reproductive germ. All three of these parts—especially the fiber content—are important elements behind the benefits of whole grains.

Many products labeled “whole grain,” “multi grain,” “wheat,” or “bran” are not actually what you’re looking for. You cannot rely on such labels, nor can you rely on the color of a piece of bread or a cracker to determine whether or not it’s whole grain; products can be dyed darker to look like they are made from more wholesome ingredients, as opposed to the refined ones they actually contain.

When you head to the grocery store, read labels carefully and ask about ingredients when you can to check for 100 percent whole-grain products. Some examples of whole grains include:

  • Oats
  • Brown rice
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Sorghum
  • Amaranth
  • Barley
  • Whole-grain corn and popcorn
  • Buckwheat
  • Rye

One of your best bets for including whole grains in your diet is to choose intact grains, such as whole quinoa as a side dish or oatmeal for breakfast. These options will weed out products that have been highly processed and have lost much of the benefits whole grains have to offer.

Share Your Experience with Whole Grains

Do you include whole grains in your diet? What are whole grains that you like best? Share your experience in the comments section below.

[1] Am J Clin Nutr. 2007 Dec;86(6):1745-53.

[2] ISME J. 2013 Feb;7(2):269-80.

[3] Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Aug;98(2):594-619.

[4] Gut Microbes. 2013 Jul-Aug;4(4):340-6.

[5] JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Mar 1;175(3):373-84.

[6] Adv Nutr. 2014 Sep;5(5):556-7.

[7] Proc Nutr Soc. 2014 Oct 23:1-8. [Epub ahead of print]

Originally published in 2015, this post is regularly updated.

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UHN Staff

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