Some fad diets love to vilify grains for a variety of reasons. But there’s a reason grains remain one of our key food groups, and research has time and again linked grain consumption with positive health outcomes. Take, for instance, this eye-opening research published in the journal Circulation. After examining studies on whole grain consumption or lack thereof of more than 780,000 participants, researchers determined those with higher whole grain consumption had a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease. One person dies from this disease every 36 seconds in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Such strong evidence (and there are others) proves grains are our friends. But all grain products aren’t created equal. Which ones are better for you? What constitutes a whole grain? How much should you be eating? Continuing our series on the food groups, we take grains out of the hopper and into the spotlight.
Whole Grains 101
Whole grain foods are great for your health, but why? A whole grain is actually a plant’s seed, which has three parts:
- Germ: an embryo inside the seed that includes B vitamins, vitamin E, minerals, and healthy fats.
- Bran: the outer shell of the grain that’s a source of fiber, B vitamins, and minerals.
- Endosperm: this starchy interior of the grain mainly includes carbohydrates and some proteins and B vitamins.
Foods made with “whole” grains include just that—the entire seed and all its nutritious goodies. During the refining process of certain foods, however, the seed is stripped of its parts to increase its shelf life and alter its texture in foods. The key vitamins, minerals, and fiber from the bran and germ are gone unless added back in. Since the U.S. government correlated health concerns to a lack of some of these vitamins and minerals, it has since required certain refined grain foods to be “enriched” with nutrients—B vitamins and iron, specifically. For example, white flour, which contains only the endosperm portion of the grain, is typically enriched. Ensuring that you’re choosing whole grain foods helps you make sure you’re getting all the nutrients lost during refining and a good amount of fiber from the bran portion of the grain. Fiber can help lower cholesterol and keep you regular. If you’re concerned that whole grain foods aren’t as tasty as their refined counterparts, the food industry has made great strides over the years in creating delicious whole grain options.
Whole wheat is likely the most known whole grain, but there are many others, including corn, barley, quinoa, and rye. Brown rice is also a whole grain whereas white rice is refined. And there’s good news for those with a gluten allergy—a good portion of them are gluten-free.
How Much is Enough?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends making half of the grains you eat each day whole grains. For most women and men, that translates to about two to five one-ounce equivalents (or servings) of whole grains. For example, a one-ounce equivalent of whole grains is a slice of 100 percent whole wheat bread, a half cup of oatmeal, three cups of popcorn, or a half-cup of cooked whole wheat pasta. (See many more equivalents by visiting the MyPlate site. Scroll down to the grains tables.)
Determining what’s a whole grain product while at the store can be tricky unless you know what you are looking for on the food package. Look for the whole grain stamp on certain foods, which also lists the amount of grains per serving. Not all foods have this stamp, so eye the Nutrition Facts Label. The Whole Grains Council, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, suggests buying products that state “100 percent whole wheat” or “whole grain” accompanied by the name of the grain in the ingredients list. Look for “oats” or “oatmeal,” as these are whole grain. If the label merely states “wheat,” “organic flour,” or “multigrain,” parts of the grain may be missing. The same goes for “enriched flour,” “wheat flour,” “bran,” or “wheat germ.” Here are additional tips from the Whole Grains Council.
A little education on whole grains can go a long way when selecting items at the grocery store. For meal and snack inspiration, check out these recipes from the MyPlate Kitchen incorporating whole grains.
—Fred Durso, Jr., is a Nutrition On Demand intern currently pursuing a master’s degree in food and nutrition and the necessary requirements to become a registered dietitian nutritionist. Prior to heading back to school, he spent more than a decade working as a journalist/communications specialist.