Healthy Eating: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Whole Grain Foods

Healthy Eating: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Whole Grain Foods

Discover exactly what whole grain foods are, how they work, and what makes them some of the healthiest foods you can eat.

It seems everything these days is touted as "whole" this or that. Whole grains, whole wheat, a whole lot of health: It's the latest in food marketing. Why? Because food manufacturers know that whole grains are, in fact, one of the healthiest ingredients you can eat. Surely, more and more foods are made with them, but that doesn't mean all are created equal. To decipher the whole mess, let's answer a few key questions that will help you understand exactly what whole grains are and how to incorporate them into your healthy eating plan.

Q: How many servings of whole grains should you eat each day?
A: Although a widely accepted guideline for nutrition is three to five servings of whole grains, a diverse diet that includes six or more servings per day is what we recommend to keep your body as young as it can be. Seem nearly impossible? Meet us in the middle and start with four daily servings of whole grain foods by adding wheat bread, brown rice, and soba noodles to your plate.

Q: What's in whole grains, like barley or oats, that makes them so special?
A: A whole grain still has all three of its original elements: The outer shell, or bran, which contains fiber and B vitamins; the germ, which contains disease-preventing compounds called phytochemicals; and the endosperm, which contains carbs and protein.

The key is that the grains are not processed or refined, which strips away the bran and the germ, leaving you eating only the aptly named endosperm. When the whole grain is left intact, you get more fiber and more micronutrients that help protect against disease.

Q: What are some good sources of whole grains?
A: Foods that have been made with unrefined (unprocessed) flours and grains such as millet, bulgur, and whole wheat contain the most whole grains. When it comes to healthy eating, brown rice, soba noodles, whole-wheat bagels, barley, and oatmeal are all great sources of whole grains. Foods rich in bran -- the outer layer of the grain seed -- are good grain choices, too. Bran is rich in fiber, B vitamins, and antioxidants.

Foods baked with refined (processed) flours, such as white bread, may be depleted of certain nutrients that whole grains contain, such as lignans, and typically contain much less fiber. When shopping for whole grain foods, look for terms such as "100% whole grain" or "100% whole oats," because manufacturers sometimes print "whole grain" on products containing only miniscule amounts of whole grains. And don't fall for labeling tricks like these.

Q: How do whole grains make your body younger?
A: A diet rich in whole grains rather than processed grains can help you:

Whole grains offer a host of health benefits. A 14-year study revealed that men who consumed the most whole-grain products, particularly those that contained bran, had the lowest rates of heart disease. Complex carbohydrates such as those found in whole-grain breads are healthier because they take longer to digest and cause glucose to be released into the bloodstream more slowly over time. In addition to being better for blood sugar control, whole grains contain plenty of fiber to help you feel full and lose weight.

Make whole grains part of your weight loss plan. Check out these tips on eating less and losing weight.

Whole grain barley is an excellent source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Insoluble fiber works to keep your colon healthy by helping to maintain regular intestinal function. Soluble fiber may help lower your cholesterol levels, thus reducing your risk of heart disease.

Q: How can you incorporate more whole grains and bran into your daily diet?
A: These delicious and nutritious whole grain recipes and pointers will get you started on the road to healthy eating.

  • Eat whole-grain breakfast cereals, such as bran flakes, shredded wheat, or oatmeal.
  • Make sandwiches with whole-grain breads.
  • Cook soup and chili with barley.
  • Serve brown rice, soba noodles, or bulgur side dishes instead of pasta or white rice.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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