Whole grains: Hearty options for a healthy diet

Find out why whole grains are better than refined grains and how to add more to your diet.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

All types of grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates and some key vitamins and minerals, but whole grains — the healthiest kinds of grains — in particular are an important part of a healthy diet.

Grains are naturally high in fiber, helping you feel full and satisfied — which makes it easier to maintain a healthy body weight. Whole grains are also linked to a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and other health problems.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half of all the grains you eat are whole grains. If you're like most people, you're not getting enough whole grains — so 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 grains are either present in their whole form or ground into a flour while retaining all parts of the seed (bran, germ and endosperm). Compared with other types of grains, whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as B vitamins, iron, folate, 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 flour in bread.
  • Refined grains. Refined grains are milled to have had the germ and bran removed, which gives them a finer texture and extends their shelf life. The refining process also removes many nutrients, including fiber. Refined grains include white flour, white rice and white bread. Many breads, cereals, crackers, desserts and pastries are made with refined grains.
  • Enriched grains. Enriched means that some of the nutrients lost during processing are replaced. Some enriched grains have replaced the B vitamins lost during milling. 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. Whole grains may or may not be fortified.

Choosing whole grains

Make at least half the grains in your diet whole grains. You can find whole-grain versions of rice, bread, cereal, flour and pasta at most grocery stores. Many whole-grain foods, including a variety of breads, pastas and cereals, are ready to eat.

Examples of whole grains include:

  • Barley
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Millet
  • Oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Whole-wheat bread, pasta or crackers

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 brown hue 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 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 over 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 fortified, whole grains are not typically fortified with folic acid.

Look for whole grains that have been fortified with folic acid, such as some ready-to-eat cereals. Eat plenty of other folate-rich foods, including fruits, vegetables and legumes. Folic acid is especially important for women who could become pregnant or are 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 quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, barley 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 bulk.
  • 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.

July 18, 2017 See more In-depth

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