Grains, especially whole grains, are an essential part of a healthy diet. Grains are fuel for your body like gasoline for your car. Yet few Americans consume the suggested three servings of whole grains per day. What makes whole grains so important? And what are some of the whole grains we should be eating?
“The evidence that whole grains are great for your health has been well-documented,” says Susan Watkins, RD, CDE, manager of nutrition education and weight management at St Jude Heritage Medical Group.
“But there is still confusion among consumers about which products contain whole grains. So it’s a good idea to learn more about what whole grains actually are, and what food labels are saying, to derive the most benefits from them.”
While consuming more bread and cereal may seem to “go against the grain” for people trying to get healthier and lose weight, they should know which ones can help them do so.
Whole Grains vs. Refined Grains
Any food made from wheat, rice, oats, corn or other cereal is a grain product, such as bread, pasta and oatmeal. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half of all the grains consumed should be whole grains – but commercial products don’t always contain them.
- Whole grains contain the entire grain: the bran, germ and endosperm. These include whole wheat, oats, brown rice, wild rice, corn, rye, barley, popcorn, buckwheat, triticale, millet, bulgur, quinoa and sorghum.
- Refined grains have been ground into flour, which removes the bran and germ, along with fiber, vitamin B and iron. Refining grains improves their texture and shelf life, but to replace the missing nutrients these products are often ‘enriched’ with the iron and vitamins added back in. The problem is now the food is not in its natural form and is still missing many of its powerful nutrients. Wheat flour, enriched bread and white rice are examples of refined products.
Whole Grains Provide Essential Nutrients
While all grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, healthier by far are the whole grains. And the nutrients they contain can have a big impact on overall wellness. Whole grains are packed with protein, antioxidants and important trace minerals like iron, zinc and copper. The B vitamins, folate, iron, magnesium and selenium in whole grains help build bones, support the nervous and immune systems and process energy.
Whole Grains Promote Heart Health and Reduce Risk of Chronic Disease
Whole grains typically contain more fiber than refined grains, and high-fiber diets have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease by helping to lower the “bad” cholesterol in the body. Whole grains contain other key nutrients that play a role in regulating blood pressure and lowering blood sugar, which also supports the heart. And studies have shown that a diet rich in whole grains has been linked to lower incidence of other chronic conditions such as type 2 diabetes.
Whole Grains Help with Weight Control
When whole grains are included in a diet low in fat and cholesterol, they can help with successful weight management. Because they digest slowly, fiber-rich whole grains help a person feel fuller longer. Many people find that they can eat less and stay full when eating whole grains because less-processed food is much more satisfying. Additionally, fiber promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the colon and can reduce constipation.
“Eating more whole grains is an easy way to add a layer of ‘health insurance’ to your life,” says Watkins. “One-half or more of your grains should be whole-grain, so if you eat six servings of grain daily, as the American Heart Association recommends, then three whole-grain servings should be your target. Check the label for the word “whole” in the list of ingredients. Terms like 'multigrain,' 'organic' and '100% wheat' may sound healthy, but none actually equate to whole grain. Also, the 'whole' ingredient should top the list of ingredients to show there’s more of it than anything else." Just make sure the product isn’t also loaded with added sugars, sodium and fats.
One great way to get more whole grains in your diet is to begin with breakfast. Start your day with a sprouted grain bread such as toasted Ezekiel with a protein like peanut butter or an egg; or, try a steel-cut oatmeal with fresh berries and nuts. Follow up with a quinoa, bean and vegetable salad. Dinner can include mixed brown and wild rice. You can incorporate all sorts of grains into salad, too.
"There are so many ways to work more whole grains into your diet," says Watkins. "Explore recipes and ingredients, find your favorites, and get in the whole grain habit." It’s easier than you think, and before you know it, you will be looking and feeling your best!
Have you made whole grains, breads and pastas a part of your balanced diet? Tell us what your favorite whole-grain foods are in the comments below.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.