Why Eat Whole Grains? (2024)

Think back on what you ate for your last few meals. Did you have a sandwich or cereal? What about a bowl of rice or pasta? Without even thinking about it, many of us include grains of some type in almost every meal.

But have you stopped to consider what kinds of grains you are eating? Refined grains, such as white flour and white rice, are often the easiest to find; however, there are also significant benefits to eating whole grains.

MyPlate.gov recommends that at least half of our grain intake be whole grains (U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], n.d.). For adults, the amount (based on our calorie needs) would be at least three 1 ounce-equivalents of whole grains every day.

What Is a Whole Grain?

All grains start as whole grains and contain the three edible parts of the grain kernel— the bran, the germ, and the endosperm (Oldways WGC, n.d.-d). As seen in the image, the bran is the thin outside layer and contains antioxidants, B vitamins, and fiber. The germ is the core of the kernel and contains B vitamins, protein, minerals, and healthful fats. The endosperm is the largest of the three parts and consists mainly of starchy carbohydrates, some proteins, and small amounts of vitamins and minerals.

When whole grains are processed to remove the germ and the bran, and all that is left is the endosperm, they are then considered refined grains (Oldways WGC, n.d.-d). This refining process removes about a quarter of the protein and decreases the quantity of 17 other important nutrients. The refined grain, therefore, no longer resembles what was harvested from the field. The refining process gives the grain a finer texture and improves the product's shelf life, but, unfortunately, refining also decreases the grain’s nutrient content. Some examples of refined grains include white rice; degermed cornmeal; and white bread, white pasta, and other products made with white flour (also known as enriched wheat flour or all-purpose flour), such as cakes, cookies, breakfast cereals, and crackers.

Examples of Whole Grains

The whole form of wheat (e.g., farro, spelt, and bulgur), corn, brown rice, wild rice, oats, barley, quinoa, and rye are whole grains. Whole grains can be eaten whole, cracked, ground, rolled, or as flaked kernels, but the mix of endosperm, germ, and bran must match that of the intact grain to be considered "whole" (Oldways WGC, n.d.-d). Terms such as "pearl" (or "pearled"), "degerminated," and "refined" indicate that the grain is not in its whole-grain form.

Why Eat Whole Grains?

Eating whole grains plays an important role in lowering the risk of stroke, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer (AICR, 2020; USDA, n.d.).

Essential nutrients: Whole grains are rich sources of B vitamins (such as thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), vitamin E, protein, and minerals including magnesium, selenium, iron, and phosphorus (USDA, n.d.).

Fiber: In addition, whole grains (like all plant-based foods) naturally contain fiber, which keeps you feeling fuller longer (thereby helping with weight management) and keeps your bowel movements regular (USDA, n.d.).

Prebiotics: The soluble fiber found in whole grains also can be fermentable and act as prebiotics that may support a health-promoting gut microbiome. Our gut microbiome is home to the beneficial bacteria living in the colon and can reduce inflammation (American Institute for Cancer Research [AICR], 2020).

How Many Should We Eat Each Day?

According to MyPlate, "only foods that are made with 100% whole grains are considered a whole-grain food" (USDA, n.d.). MyPlate recommends that Americans consume at least three 1 ounce-equivalents of whole-grain foods daily. A 1 ounce-equivalent of a 100% whole grain provides 16 grams of whole grains (Oldways WGC, n.d.-e; USDA and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2020). Three 1 ounce-equivalents, therefore, add up to 48 grams of whole grains.

To get your three 1 ounce-equivalents (48 grams) of whole grains, you could eat either:

  • three 1 ounce-equivalents of whole-grain foods labeled as 100 percent whole grain,
  • six 1 ounce-equivalents of grains that contain a mix of whole and refined grains (at least 8 grams of whole grains), or
  • a combination of the two.

For reference, the following count as 1 ounce-equivalents: a regular slice of whole-grain bread; 1 cup of whole-grain cold breakfast cereal (flakes and rounds); or ½ cup of cooked rice, cooked pasta, or cooked hot cereal. Refer to MyPlate.gov to find out how many whole grains you should eat and to see what else counts as an ounce-equivalent of grains (USDA, n.d.).

Shopping for Whole Grains

Figuring out whether a product is a whole grain can be challenging. For starters, the amount of whole grain does not appear on the Nutrition Facts label. Also, the ingredient list does not indicate the amount of whole grain in a food. Luckily, there are tools you can use to help you choose whole grains when shopping.

First, look at the ingredient list. Considering ingredients are listed most to least by weight, if the first ingredient says, "whole X" (e.g., whole-wheat flour, whole oats, whole rye), then that product is a whole-grain product. If the whole grain appears farther down the list, the product will likely not contain enough whole grain to count as a 1 ounce-equivalent. Some words manufacturers use for refined white flour (not whole grains) include "semolina," "durum wheat flour," "all-purpose flour," "wheat flour," and "enriched wheat flour."

Second, look for a Whole Grain Stamp on the package. These distinctive stamps began to be used in 2005 and can be helpful when trying to determine products that include whole grains (Oldways WGC, n.d.-g). There are three types of whole grain stamps you may find on a food package, all of which look similar to the one pictured here.

  • The 100% Stamp tells you that a food contains a full ounce-equivalent (16 grams) or more of whole grains in each serving size listed and that all the grain is whole grain.
  • The 50%+ Stamp tells you that the product has a minimum of 8 grams, or half an ounce-equivalent, of whole grain per serving.
  • There is also a Basic Whole Grain Stamp that signifies that the product contains at least 8 grams of whole grain per listed serving size but also contains more refined grains than whole.

Third, you may find the amount of whole grains in one serving of the product listed on the package. This information will be on the front or top of boxes. For example, this is becoming more common on cereal packages.

Be aware of three common marketing ploys that food companies often use in their packaging and labeling to give the impression that an item is whole grain.

  • Misleading terms: They'll use words such as "stone ground," "wheat," "12 grain," or "multi-grain," but these words do not necessarily mean the product contains whole grains. For example, most 12-grain breads list the first ingredient as enriched wheat flour, which is not a whole grain.
  • Misleading color: Don't let the color of "wheat" bread fool you either. Often molasses or caramel coloring is added to give the bread a darker (i.e., "healthier") color, but the bread is actually made from refined flour.
  • Misleading descriptions: Some products will state they are "made with" whole grains, despite the fact they contain only a very small amount of whole grain (as indicated by it being listed lower on the ingredient list). A product might also declare that it was "baked with" whole wheat, but the first ingredient listed is refined flour.

Before you go shopping, look at the packages of grains in your pantry. How many would qualify as whole grains? If you aren't finding many, the next time you shop for food, seek out whole grains. Try substituting brown rice, wild rice, and whole-wheat pasta for white rice and white (e.g., semolina) pasta. Add variety to your meals by including quinoa, farro, bulgur, millet, barley, and spelt. Whole grains are delicious as well as full of nutrients!

Adding More Whole Grains to Your Meals

Think of grains by the levels of processing they undergo (Oldways WGC, n.d.-b):

  • least processed: whole grains in their intact or whole form (hulled barley, quinoa, brown rice, oats), 
  • less processed: whole-grain flour (whole-wheat bread and whole-wheat pasta), and
  • most processed: refined grains (white rice, white flour, white bread, and white pasta).

To make whole-grain choices, select foods from the first two levels (least- and less-processed). Some ideas include:

  • preparing brown rice with a vegetable stir-fry,
  • filling a whole-wheat pita with chicken salad and leafy greens, or
  • making your favorite Italian dish with whole-grain pasta.

You can also boost mixed dishes by adding oats to meatloaf or tossing cooked quinoa into a salad. You can even experiment with a new whole grain in your favorite soup!

A benefit of choosing different whole grains is that the amount of fiber varies from grain to grain. For example, 1 cup of cooked brown rice provides 3 grams of fiber, while 1 cup of cooked bulgur has 5 grams of fiber, and 1 cup of cooked hulled barley has 9 grams of fiber (Oldways WGC, n.d.-h). Check the Nutrition Facts label to determine how much fiber a grain contains.

Are you looking for other ways to make at least half your family's grains whole grains?

  • Start with breakfast. Choose a fiber-rich, whole-grain cooked cereal like oatmeal, or opt for toasting a slice of whole-wheat bread.
  • Choose whole grains over refined items when selecting breads, rolls, bagels, tortillas, pasta, rice, and other grain products.
  • Experiment with less common grains, such as buckwheat, bulgur, farro, quinoa, whole rye, or barley. To save time, cook extra portions of the whole grain, then freeze half to heat and serve later as a quick side dish (or use it as an ingredient in a future recipe).
  • Enjoy whole grains as a snack. Popcorn is a whole grain, and 3 cups of air-popped popcorn contain 3½ grams of dietary fiber and only 95 calories. Try 100% whole-wheat or whole-grain rye crackers with your favorite cheese or nut butter.

The following recipe for quinoa salad is a quick and easy first step into the world of whole-grain cooking.

Fiesta Quinoa Salad Recipe

When preparing this recipe, start with clean countertops and utensils. Wash hands with soap and water. Wash the whole fresh produce by rinsing the cilantro and gently rubbing the corn, bell pepper, scallions, and limes under cold running water. Prewashed packaged items do not require further washing.

6 servings | serving size: ⅙ of recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 cup uncooked quinoa
  • 2 cups no salt added vegetable broth
  • 2 ears of cooked corn, kernels cut from the cob or 1 (15 ounce) can no salt added corn, drained and rinsed
  • 1 red bell pepper, chopped
  • 1½ cups cooked black beans or (15-ounce) can no salt added black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3 scallions, sliced
  • ½ cup loosely packed fresh chopped cilantro
  • 3–6 Tablespoons of lime juice, to taste
  • 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
  • ⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Directions

  1. Rinse the quinoa in a fine-mesh colander under running water.
  2. Using vegetable broth as the liquid, prepare the quinoa according to the package directions. Once prepared, remove from heat.
  3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, mix together the corn, bell pepper, beans, scallions, and cilantro.
  4. In a small bowl, prepare the dressing by combining the lime juice, olive oil, and seasonings. Whisk until well blended.
  5. In the large bowl, mix cooked quinoa into the vegetables.
  6. Pour dressing over quinoa mixture. Stir to combine. Cover and chill for at least 30 minutes.

Recipe adapted from Whole Grains Council, Fiesta Quinoa Salad

References

American Institute for Cancer Research. (2020). Why you should include whole grains in your diet.

Oldways Whole Grains Council. (n.d.-a). Look for whole grain [Image]. Oldways Whole Grains Council.

Oldways Whole Grains Council. (n.d.-b). Storing whole grains.

Oldways Whole Grains Council. (n.d.-c). What are the health benefits?

Oldways Whole Grains Council. (n.d.-d). What is a whole grain?

Oldways Whole Grains Council. (n.d.-e). What is an ounce equivalent?

Oldways Whole Grains Council. (n.d.-f). Whole grain parts [Image].

Oldways Whole Grains Council. (n.d.-g). Whole grain stamp.

Oldways Whole Grains Council, (n.d.-h). Whole grains a to z.

U.S. Department of Agriculture. (n.d.). What foods are in the grains group?

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. (9th ed.).

Why Eat Whole Grains? (2024)
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