A whole grain is a simple food, the soul of the health food ideal. There’s good reason to eat whole grains: The fiber and nutrients are associated with reduced risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, and offer the added perk of better weight maintenance. Problem is, getting whole grains into a modern diet isn’t simple at all. The whole-grain landscape is confusing. There is no simple standard for a serving. Food labels are unreliable. Definitions are tricky. The goal this month is to take a simple approach to servings, decode the labels, and then get three more servings of whole grains into your diet each day, without a lot of fuss: It can be as simple as having a serving at breakfast, lunch, and snack time or dinner.
Here’s what you need to know. A grain is a seed, having three parts: a vitamin- and oil-rich germ (the part that sprouts); a starchy coating that feeds the germ; and a layer of antioxidant-rich, high-fiber bran that protects this nutritious package. Refined grains usually consist of only one part of the seed: When wheat, for example, is refined, the bran is removed, as is the perishable germ, leaving a shelf-stable, nutrient-stripped starchy powder known as white flour. Lots of carbs in that, and beautiful for baking, but much goodness is missing. Whole grains, by contrast, have all three parts.
A bowl of cooked brown rice or oatmeal is perhaps the simplest example of a whole-grain food—half a cup of either is the government’s definition of a serving, as is a half-cup of whole-grain pasta. Things get trickier with whole-grain products, though, because you have to ask how much whole grain is in the food.