Grains, especially whole grains, are an essential part of a healthy diet. All types of grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates and some key vitamins and minerals. Grains are also naturally low in fat. All of this makes grains a healthy option. Better yet, they've been linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems.
The healthiest kinds of grains are whole grains. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half of all the grains you eat are whole grains. Chances are you eat lots of grains already. But are they whole grains? If you're like most people, you're not getting enough whole grains in your diet. See how to make whole grains a part of your healthy diet.
Types of grains
Also called cereals, grains and whole grains are the seeds of grasses cultivated for food. Grains and whole grains come in many shapes and sizes, from large kernels of popcorn to small quinoa seeds.
- Whole grains. These are unrefined grains that haven't had their bran and germ removed by milling. Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium and magnesium. Whole grains are either single foods, such as brown rice and popcorn, or ingredients in products, such as buckwheat in pancakes or whole wheat in bread.
- Refined grains. Refined grains are milled, a process that strips out both the bran and germ to give them a finer texture and extend their shelf life. The refining process also removes many nutrients, including fiber. Refined grains include white flour, white rice, white bread and degermed cornflower. Many breads, cereals, crackers, desserts and pastries are made with refined grains, too.
- Enriched grains. Enriched means that some of the nutrients lost during processing are added back in. Some enriched grains are grains that have lost B vitamins added back in — but not the lost natural fiber. Fortifying means adding in nutrients that don't occur naturally in the food. Most refined grains are enriched, and many enriched grains also are fortified with other vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and iron. Some countries require certain refined grains to be enriched. Whole grains may or may not be fortified.
Choosing whole grains
Make at least half the grains in your diet whole grains. Whole-grain versions of rice, bread, cereal, flour and pasta can be found at most grocery stores. Many whole-grain foods come ready to eat. These include a variety of breads, pastas and cereals.
Examples of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Whole-wheat bread, pasta or crackers
- Wild rice
It's not always easy to tell what kind of grains a product has, especially bread. For instance, a brown bread isn't necessarily whole wheat — the color may come from added coloring. If you're not sure something has whole grains, check the product label or the Nutrition Facts panel. Look for the word "whole" on the package, and make sure whole grains appear among the first items in the ingredient list.
What about white whole-wheat bread?
It may seem like it doesn't add up, but actually white whole-wheat bread is made with whole grains, just as is regular whole-wheat bread. White whole-wheat bread also is nutritionally similar to that of regular whole-wheat bread. So if you prefer the taste and texture of white bread, but want the nutritional benefits of whole wheat, choose white whole-wheat bread — not regular, refined white bread.
A word of caution
If all of the grains you eat are whole grains, you may need to take extra care to get sufficient folic acid, a B vitamin. While most refined-grain products are enriched, whole grains are not typically fortified with folate.
Look for whole grains that have been fortified with folic acid, such as some ready-to-eat cereals. Folate is also found in other foods, including fruits, vegetables and legumes. Folic acid is especially important if you're a woman who could become pregnant or is pregnant.
How to enjoy more whole grains in your diet
Try these tips to add more whole grains to your meals and snacks:
- Enjoy breakfasts that include whole-grain cereals, such as whole-wheat bran flakes (some bran flakes may just have the bran, not the whole grain), shredded wheat or oatmeal.
- Substitute whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels for plain bagels. Substitute low-fat muffins made with whole-grain cereals, such as oatmeal or others, for pastries.
- Make sandwiches using whole-grain breads or rolls. Swap out white-flour tortillas with whole-wheat versions.
- Replace white rice with kasha, brown rice, wild rice or bulgur.
- Feature wild rice or barley in soups, stews, casseroles and salads.
- Add whole grains, such as cooked brown rice or whole-grain bread crumbs, to ground meat or poultry for extra body.
- Use rolled oats or crushed whole-wheat bran cereal in recipes instead of dry bread crumbs.
Eating a variety of whole grains not only ensures that you get more health-promoting nutrients but also helps make your meals and snacks more interesting.