Whole grains are an essential part of a healthy diet. Here’s the dish on these mighty morsels, from A (amaranth) to W (wheat).
Are you eating enough whole grains? Chances are you may not be—MyPlate, the most recent nutrition guide released by the USDA, recommends six 1-ounce servings of grains each day. Most importantly, at least half of these servings need to be whole grains. Prized as the ultimate nutrition package, whole grains taste absolutely delicious when mixed into salads, soups, breads, and more. If you think that consuming grains means a carb-overload, worry not. Whole grains fall into the “good” carb category along with fruits, veggies, and legumes.
An archeological finding from the University of Calgary evidenced that humans have relied on grain as a staple crop for least 100,000 years. Today, staple crops such as rice, wheat, and corn feed the majority of our planet. Yes, whole grains make the world go round, but how much do you actually know about them? Our comprehensive guide answers all your questions, and shows you just how easy it is to work more whole grains into your diet.
What are whole grains?
Grains are the edible seeds of plants. A grain is a “whole grain” if it contains the three key parts of a seed: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains fall into one of two categories, cereals and pseudocereals. Cereal grains come from cereal grasses such as wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley, sorghum, rye, and millet. Pseudocereal grains are cooked and consumed in a similar manner, but they do not come from grasses—grains in this category include quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth.
In effect, all grains start as whole grains, but they don’t all end up on the shelf as such. Key parts of the seeds are stripped away during milling, a manufacturing process that increases the shelf life of products such as flour. Unfortunately, most of the essential nutrients are lost in this process. Consuming whole grains is the only way that you can be 100% sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck nutritionally.
What are the health benefits?
Whole grains abound with heart-healthy soluble fiber that controls appetite while regulating blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In fact, a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet rich in whole grains significantly decreased the risk for heart disease. Whole grains also pack a wealth of antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory and cancer-fighting benefits.
How much of my diet should contain whole grains?
MyPlate recommends that at least half of all grains consumed daily should be whole grains. Ideally, if you're consuming six 1-ounce servings of grains each day, three of these servings will be whole grains. MyPlate offers several common one-ounce equivalents as a resource. For example, one slice of whole wheat bread would count as one 1-ounce serving.
Can I eat whole grains if I’m gluten-free?
Absolutely—there are plenty of fantastic gluten-free grains out there, such as brown rice, quinoa, corn, and more. Grains to avoid are wheat (such as wheat berries, spelt, kamut, farro, and bulgur), rye, barley, and triticale. Oats are technically gluten-free, but they carry a higher possibility of cross-contamination during manufacturing. To be safe, choose gluten-free oats such as Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Rolled Oats.
See More: The Gluten-Free Guide to Whole Grains
What types of whole grains should I be eating?
While all whole grains are superstars, many pack unique characteristics and health benefits not found in other grains. Here are the nine that truly shine.
Bulgur: Most often seen as the key ingredient of the Middle Eastern staple tabbouleh, bulgur is a type of wheat that needs only a few minutes to cook. It also contains the most fiber out of any grain.
Rice: This extremely versatile grain is widely available, inexpensive, and gluten-free. Opt for brown rice, which is made from whole grains, and avoid white rice, which is made with refined grains.
Corn: Often categorized as a vegetable, corn is actually a grain. While it may attract skepticism because of its use in unhealthy products such as high fructose corn syrup, corn in its purest form is packed with antioxidants. Look for it in an assortment of colors—yellow, white, blue, and even purple—and eat it straight from the cob or toast the kernels for popcorn.
Oats: From old-fashioned to steel-cut, oats are a staple breakfast food that are guaranteed to be whole grain even if they are quick-cooking. While all grains are high in fiber, oatmeal contains a special variety called beta-glucan that’s especially powerful in lowering cholesterol.
Farro: This light-brown colored, medium-sized ancient grain is a type of wheat and is similar in appearance, texture, and taste to wheat berries. Restaurant chefs especially prize farro for its delightfully chewy texture and sweet taste.
Teff: Don’t let the small size fool you—this gluten-free ancient grain packs massive health perks. Teff, a type of millet, has significantly more calcium and iron than other grains. Its small size makes it ideal for baking into energy bars and breads such as injera, a spongy flatbread popular indigenous to Ethiopia.
Sorghum: Largely grown in the United States for livestock feed, sorghum has recently been embraced for its versatility by the gluten-free community. Cooked sorghum has a chewy texture similar to Israeli couscous, while popped sorghum is a pint-sized version of popcorn. Sorghum flour is also commonly used in gluten-free baking.
Quinoa: Quick-cooking, gluten-free, and available in a range of colors from white to red, quinoa is a protein powerhouse. This ancient grain is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is also popular for its mild flavor, subtle chewiness, and versatility.
Buckwheat: Don’t be mislead by the name—buckwheat is actually gluten-free and closely related to sorrel and rhubarb. However, its seeds are carbohydrate-rich and lend themselves to the same uses as wheat. Use buckwheat flour as a base for pancake and waffle mixes or whole buckwheat for salads or soups.
Amaranth: Like quinoa, amaranth is gluten-free and protein-packed, but it is smaller in size and has a pronounced peppery flavor. Indigenous to South America, where it’s known as kiwicha, amaranth is often toasted and popped as a street food.
How do I buy whole grains?
Look for whole grains at your local grocery store, either in the bulk foods section or in the rice or pasta aisle. Some stores keep products in the “health foods” or international aisle as well. Bob’s Red Mill is a widely available brand that makes just about every whole grain in existence. If you can’t find a specific product in stores, considering ordering it from Amazon.
To make sure you're purchasing 100% whole-grain foods, check the package label. First and foremost, scan the ingredients list. Look for the word “whole” before grains (such as whole wheat) and watch out for flours that are refined or enriched. Some products may display the Whole Grain Stamp, an indicator created by the Whole Grains Council to show consumers the total amount of whole grains in a product.
See More: Decoding Whole-Grain Food Labels
How do I cook with them?
Whole grains lend themselves to a plethora of savory and sweet applications from breakfast to dinner and beyond. Here are the best ways to incorporate them into your diet:
Toast as a crunchy snack or topper for salads: Popped Amaranth
Make DIY snack bars: Cranberry-Pistachio Energy Bars
For more tasty ideas, check out Everyday Whole Grains: 175 Recipes from Amaranth to Wild Rice by Cooking Light Executive Editor Ann Pittman.