All whole grains are healthful, in both universal and unique ways.
According to the Dietary Guidelines, at least half of our grains should be whole. Unfortunately, according to recent stats, fewer than five percent of Americans consume the minimum recommended amount of whole grains, which is about three ounces per day. Studies show that substituting one serving of whole grains daily for the same amount of refined grains was associated with an eight percent lower mortality risk, mostly from cardiovascular reasons. Better yet, eating one daily serving of whole grains instead of one serving of red meat was linked to a 20 percent drop in mortality due to cardiovascular causes.
Whole grains provide us with fiber, and we also fall short on the recommendations with an average of 15 grams of fiber a day.
The Adequate Intake for fiber is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Fiber has potential health benefits for significantly lower risk for cardiovascular disease, and benefits diabetes, certain cancers, certain gastrointestinal conditions, and weight management. Research shows that you need to get more than 26 grams of fiber per day to reduce your risk of diabetes by 18 percent. That’s enough to make anyone rethink the fad diets out there and strive for a more plant-based, high-fiber diet.
First, a reminder on what are whole grains: In order for a food to be called a “whole grain,” it must contain the entire grain seed, meaning all the parts in their original proportions. One hundred percent of the original grain, bran, germ, and endosperm must be present to be categorized as a whole grain. Refined grains maintain only the endosperm portion of the original seed. Whole wheat isn’t the only whole grain available; there are many grains out there that you maybe haven’t tried or didn’t even know existed. You may have noticed different types of grains in your bread or other products. You may have heard some of them referred to as ancient, heritage, or super grains.
The Oldways Whole Grains Council provides a summary of data on the nutrient amounts grains provide us in the U.S. diet: 70 percent of folate, 60 percent of thiamin, 50 percent of iron, 40 percent or more of niacin, riboflavin, and selenium; and 25 percent of magnesium and zinc. Many grains also provide calcium, potassium, Vitamin E, and antioxidants. For fiber, grains contain certain types of beneficial fiber that vegetables alone cannot provide. For instance, barley and oats are attributed to lowering cholesterol and the fiber in grains is linked to a reduced risk of colon cancer.
What they (the other grains) have in common
You can add whole grains to salads, use them in soups and stews, cook into a hot cereal (such as amaranth, teff, wheat berries) or creamy breakfast porridge, and some can even be made into flours for baked goods. You can use them in breads and muffins, and have probably noticed in them in the grocery stores. All these grains are worth a try, as they are delicious and healthy alternatives for variety. You will even find them in cereals, pancake mixes, and even pastas.
Here is a recap of just some of other grains you may want to try.
Amaranth is not really a grain at all, but it is considered a whole grain by the Whole Grains Council because of its similar nutrient profile. It is actually in the same family as spinach, Swiss chard, beets, and quinoa. Resembling a fine couscous, it has what is described as a nutty-sweet, sometimes peppery flavor with a great crunch when cooked. It is one of the most nutritious plant-based proteins containing all of the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and is especially high in lysine, known to have cancer preventive benefits. It contains about 5 grams of protein and is rich in calcium with 60 mg per half cup serving. This gluten free whole grain is good as a hot cereal, in soups and stews as a rice substitution, or made into flour for pancakes, muffins, and cookies.
Farro is considered the ancient grain of modern wheat. Just make sure you are buying whole farro and not the pearled, as the bran has been removed in this type. Although it is not gluten free, it is much lower in gluten. Apart from being a great source of fiber, it is high in niacin which helps the body metabolize protein, carbohydrates, fats, magnesium, iron, and zinc. It has a wonderful chewy and nutty taste. I recently made a risotto out of farro in lieu of Arborio rice and it was amazing. Definitely worth a try.
Quinoa is probably one of the better known whole grains and is rich in protein, about 8 grams per cup. It cooks up fluffy with a nutty flavor. Just remember that it must be washed before cooking due to a natural coating of bitter compounds. Quinoa comes in pale yellow and red varieties with the latter containing significantly more antioxidants.
Teff has a mildly nutty flavor and great for veggie burgers, stews, or even a cooked cereal. I find the darker varieties to have almost a chocolatey taste, which I am all for. It is so small, it cannot be separated, and therefore it can only be consumed as a whole grain. Apart from the common nutrients mentioned, teff is also a good source of calcium (60 grams per 4 ounces cooked), manganese, phosphorous, copper, aluminum, barium, thiamin, and vitamin C. Noteworthy here is that the iron in teff is easily absorbed and recommended for people with low blood iron status. It is gluten free and a great alternative for those with gluten disease or gluten sensitivity.
Millet is considered one of the oldest grains in existence. These small yellow grains are packed with copper, zinc, phosphorus, manganese, and magnesium, as well as fiber. It possesses a mild flavor that works well with both sweet and savory dishes with some examples being pilaf and breakfast cereals.
Wheat berries are the whole kernels of the wheat plant from which all wheat products are derived with only the inedible outer husks being removed. They resemble a short-grain brown rice that tastes chewy and nutty when boiled.
Spelt is rich in fiber, iron, and protein with a sweet, nutty taste. It can be used in baking and can be used in place of common wheat containing recipes. Always look for the word “whole” when buying spelt, to ensure it is the whole grain.
There are several other whole grains to explore out there, like kamut, sorghum, buckwheat, etc. So here is a helpful guide on the preparation and cooking times from the OldWays Whole Grains Council: Cooking Whole Grains .
Grains in bread
As reported in a recent study in the International Journal of Food and Sciences and Nutrition, eating bread made with ancient or super grain varieties could help lower cholesterol, lower blood glucose, and have beneficial effects on cardiovascular health. A study that followed 120,000 people for 26 years showed that higher whole grain consumption was associated with a reduced risk of death from all causes. Therefore, whole grains, whether ancient or not, should be included in your daily diet, as they have a strong association with high diet quality and nutrient intake that includes fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals that are health promoting.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information