What Are Whole Grains?

A diet that includes whole grains is associated with a wide range of health benefits and might help you to live longer. But what exactly 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. Nowadays, 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 may just be “posing” as health foods? In short, what are whole grains, and how can you identify them?

Health Benefits of Whole Grains

A diet that includes whole grains may benefit health by improving cholesterol levels, lipid metabolism, body mass index (also known as BMI, the measure of body fat based on height and weight), blood sugar regulation, and immunity. Whole grain intake is a great source of dietary fiber, iron, and B vitamins; therefore, is associated with reduced risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer, like colon cancer. Whole grains contain the entire kernel, while refined grains remove the bran and germ, which also removed the dietary fiber, iron, and many B vitamins. Refined grains can be very detrimental to your health in many ways.

What Are Whole Grains, and What Are the Best Whole Grain Options?

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 necessarily whole grain. 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. Opt for products that have low sodium and sugar levels, and high fiber. Some examples of whole grains include:

whole grain food label

Whole grain products are high in nutrients like dietary fiber and iron. Look for this on the label to feel confident in your grain choice.

  • 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.

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. It is not as beneficial to your health to include additional grain into your diet. Instead, choose whole grains (oatmeal, whole wheat bread, brown rice) over refined grains (white flour, white rice, white bread).

In general, keep grains to a small portion of your diet – MyPlate recommends about 30%, and half of those should be whole grains. Fruits and vegetables should take the starring role on your plate, taking up 50% of your plate, combined. The final 20% is made up of a variety of high-quality proteins. The actual amounts are determined based on factors like age, sex, and activity level.

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 help you get started, and easy switches to choose healthier whole grains over refined grains.

  1. Replace your regular breakfast cereal with oatmeal.
  2. Replace white bread with whole wheat bread like buckwheat or rye.
  3. Replace a side of white rice with quinoa, wild rice, brown rice, or farro.
  4. Replace white pasta with whole grain options like brown rice pasta or quinoa pasta.
  5. Snack on whole grain crackers or popcorn instead of chips.
  6. Also, look for these ingredients in products: 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 on the body, including lowering blood pressure, stabilizing blood sugar, and fighting cancer.

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.

Originally published in 2015, this post is regularly updated.

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UHN Staff

University Health News is produced by the award-winning editors and authors of Belvoir Media Group’s Health & Wellness Division. Headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with editorial offices in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, … Read More

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