Want wholesome health? Go for whole grains

Unprocessed grains are packed with nutrients, taste and disease-fighting goodness.
Whole grains aren’t just tasty and packed with fiber—they also aid in disease prevention. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

For many years, grains have been touted as the bad guy, especially in fad diets that encourage little to no grain intake.

But are they really bad for us? The short answer is no.

Unless you have an allergy or an intolerance to wheat, or you’ve been advised by your provider not to eat them, whole grains can be a nutritious and delicious part of your diet.

What is a whole grain?

Whole grains contain all three naturally occurring parts of the seed of a grain crop: the bran, the germ and the endosperm. The bran and the germ generally contain the most valuable nutrients, such as fiber, protein, antioxidants, potassium and B vitamins.

Refined grains, in contrast, are originally whole grains but are then processed and stripped of the bran and the germ, leaving only the endosperm, or the starchy part, of the kernel. With all three original components of the grain intact, whole grains are generally the best choice in terms of nutrition offerings.

What are the benefits of whole grains?

They are good sources of fiber. Most Americans should be getting 25 to 35 grams of fiber each day, but studies show that on average we only eat about half this amount.

Including whole grains in your diet can be a great way to up your fiber game. Just 1/4 cup of farro, for example, has 7 grams of fiber. Fiber is important because it helps promote feelings of fullness, which can aid in weight loss or weight management. It can also help regulate blood sugars, reduce your LDL cholesterol, and improve your digestive health.

What counts?

Ever wonder what counts as one serving of whole grain? Here are some handy examples:

  • 1/2 cup cooked grain, such as brown rice, farro or barley
  • 1/2 cup cooked 100 percent whole grain pasta
  • 1 ounce uncooked whole grain pasta, brown rice, or other grain
  • 1 slice 100 percent whole grain bread
  • 1/2 cup cooked oatmeal
  • 1 cup 100 percent whole grain ready-to-eat cereal
  • 3 cups of popped popcorn

They can help lower your risk of some chronic diseases. An eating pattern that includes regular consumption of whole grains has been associated with significant decreases in risk of stroke, Type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, inflammatory disease, heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases.

Studies have shown that a single 1-ounce serving of whole grains each day is associated with a 5 percent lower overall risk of death and a 9 percent lower risk of death from heart disease. Other studies have shown an impressive 20 percent reduction in mortality risk by eating at least three 1-ounce servings of whole grains daily.

They add flavor and variety to your meals and snacks. Tired of eating the same foods? Look up a recipe for freekeh, millet or farro, all ancient whole grains that each have a unique flavor profile but are still packed full of nutrients.

At dinner, replace your regular potato or pasta with one of these to add some flavor and interest to your cooking. Add rolled oats to a smoothie or to yogurt with berries for a different take on your breakfast meal.

Some recommendations for whole grain intake:

  • Aim to include 48 grams, or three servings, of whole grains per day. (Read the “What counts?” section above for examples of one serving of whole grain.)
  • Replace refined grains with their healthier whole-grain counterparts. If you are currently eating refined grains, you may not need to add extra whole grains. To prevent adding too many calories to your diet, simply replace refined grains with whole grains. For example, choose whole grain bread versus white bread.
  • Be smart when shopping for whole grains. Look for the Whole Grain stamp on grocery store products to certify you’re truly buying a whole grain product. This stamp identifies products that contain at least 16 grams (one serving) of whole grains per serving. If you don’t see the Whole Grain stamp, look at the ingredient list for whole-grain ingredients high in the list.

Do you have questions about whole grains or would you like to review your eating pattern with a registered dietitian? Go to Spectrum Health’s nutrition page to set up an appointment.

Holly Dykstra, MA, RD, is a cardiovascular dietitian in Preventive Cardiology and Rehab at Spectrum Health.

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Comments (3)

    • Hi Karen,

      Soaking grains before you eat them may be a good idea if you are a vegan or are on a very restricted diet. The reason is because phytic acid, present in grains, tends to bind to iron, calcium, zinc and magnesium and is poorly absorbed in our gastrointestinal tracts. This could potentially lead to deficiencies in these minerals if you are not eating a variety of foods in your diet. Soaking, sprouting and fermenting grains can reduce phytic acid in grains, therefore increasing absorption of those minerals.
      If you are including a variety of meats, seafood, dark green vegetables, beans and lentils and nuts in your diet, soaking may not be necessary.
      Hope this helps!

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