According to the US Department of Agriculture, at least half of the grains you eat throughout the day should be whole grains. But what are whole grains, exactly?
To quote the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Whole grains refer to grains that have all of the parts of the grain seed (sometimes called the kernel).” In other words, it’s grain that hasn’t been processed or refined as much. This gives it certain benefits, such as:
- more B vitamins and iron, for energy metabolism and healthy blood cells
- fiber for healthy digestion
- a more even impact on your insulin levels, to prevent diabetes
Refined grain products, meanwhile, have a smoother texture and a longer shelf life. This latter quality may have been valuable when transporting food was more difficult and costly, but with today’s modern system of roads and rails, getting a wide variety of healthy, fresh whole-grain products is easier than ever before.
Okay, so where should you start?
Most of the grain products you already love come in whole-grain alternatives, so you can start switching out some of these for others right away. Some easy switches include:
- Brown rice, wild rice or whole wheat couscous (instead of white rice)
- Whole wheat or whole grain bread (instead of white bread)
- Whole wheat flour tortillas (instead of white flour tortillas)
- Buckwheat noodles or whole wheat pasta (instead of enriched pasta, rice noodles or egg noodles)
- Whole grain cereals (instead of cereals made with “enriched” grains, which is code word for “refined.”)
- Popcorn (instead of pretzels made from refined flour)
Other items that fall into the whole grain group might not be so obvious, like oatmeal. Try buying it plain and mixing it with raw honey, small pieces of fresh fruit, or cinnamon and raisins, to avoid all the added sugar in packaged oatmeal and make it taste any way you like.
One up-and-coming grain is called quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), a South American grain with a texture like that of couscous. It’s versatile, mild-flavored, and easy to cook, like rice, and can be simmered with lots of different spices or mixed with whatever you’d mix rice with (such as sautéed vegetables). While technically, quinoa is a seed and not a grain, it cooks up exactly like rice in about the same amount of time. And because its a seed, it contains a higher amount of protein than your typical whole grains–including all nine essential amino acids, making it an excellent choice for vegans, vegetarians, or anyone worried about getting enough protein.
One word to the wise: don’t assume that products labeled “multi-grain” are actually “whole grain.” Unless the first ingredient on a food label is a whole grain one– as in whole wheat flour, whole oat flour, brown rice flour– the product is not going to be a good source of whole grains… not matter how many grains are listed on that ingredient label.
Having said all that, though, refined grains aren’t unilaterally bad. Some semi-processed grains can actually be quite nutritious. Take pearled barley for example: its technically a refined grain, but still contains more fiber and iron than many types of whole grains, making it an honorary member of the whole grain club.
By law, flour made from refined wheat must be enriched with the B-vitamins and iron it lost in processing, and fortified with folic acid. (The lost fiber, however, cannot be replaced.) As a result, products made with refined flour–like some cereals and white bread–are often a key source of these nutrients in the American diet. As a result, refined grains are better than no grains at all in most peoples’ diets.