Eat More Whole Grains: The Basics

Wild Rice

It’s the start of a new year, and we are all considering change. Many of us want to seize this opportunity to take better care of our bodies — whether that means losing weight, making it to the gym more often, or eating healthier. I have that mindset now, and my writing on EatDrinkBetter pushes me (in a good way) to find new avenues to do just that — eat and drink better in 2013.

In 2013, I resolve to eat more whole grains!

Long-time white and brown rice eaters, my family and I recently discovered the great taste and healthy advantages of quinoa and barley. Then the other day, my husband sent me an article titled “The Truth About Whole Grains.” After reading it and following a few links, I now know that quinoa and barley represent just the tip of the great-taste-healthy-whole-grain iceberg. We have a lot to learn — and eat!

This is the first in a series of posts I plan to write about whole grains. Keep reading to learn with me and find delightful ways to prepare this healthy food.

What are whole grains?

Whole Grain KernelThe Whole Grains Council provides an amazing set of resources for anyone who wants to know more about whole grains. It created an official definition of its namesake ingredient in 2004:

Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally-occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. If the grain has been processed (e.g., cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, and/or cooked), the food product should deliver approximately the same rich balance of nutrients that are found in the original grain seed.

So a whole grain ingredient must contain 100% of all three components of the original kernel — the bran, endosperm, and germ. Processing grains typically removes the bran and germ, leaving only the endosperm and tossing out about 25% of the grain’s protein and at least 17 key nutrients. (This is why whole grains kick processed grains’ butts.)

Some whole grains float to the top of anyone’s mind: oats, brown rice, wild rice, and certain types of wheat. Others are more obscure: amaranth, barley, buckwheat, and sorghum, to name a few. I’ve also learned that a few are gluten free, so gluten intolerant eaters can enjoy whole grains while still meeting their dietary needs.

Why should I care?

Many studies tout the benefits of eating more whole grains. According to the Whole Grains Council web site, repeated studies show that consuming whole grains leads to:

  • a 30 to 36% reduction in stroke risk
  • a 21 to 30% reduction in type 2 diabetes risk
  • a 25 to 28% reduction in the risk of heart disease, and

If you have a history of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes in your family, these numbers should catch your attention. (They did mine.) But the health benefits go on to include lowered blood pressure and reduced risks for asthma, colorectal cancer, and inflammatory disease. Studies also show that substituting whole grains for refined grains can lead to weight loss, reduced body fat, and lower cholesterol levels. That’s a lot of goodness packed into a collection of tiny kernels.

How much should I eat?

The government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (released in early 2011) recommends adults eat three to five servings of whole grains daily. But every little bit helps. Making even a slight increase in your whole grain consumption begins to provide health benefits. What’s a serving? 16 grams of whole grains. Which looks something like this:

  • 1/2 cup cooked brown rice or other cooked grain
  • 1/2 cup cooked 100% whole grain pasta
  • 1/2 cup cooked hot cereal, like oatmeal
  • 1 ounce uncooked whole grain pasta, brown rice, or other whole grain
  • 1 slice 100% whole grain bread
  • 1 very small (1 ounce) 100% whole grain muffin
  • 1 cup 100% whole grain ready-to-eat cereal

This list comes across as rather bland, but think about using barley to make a warming parmesan risotto, topping that whole grain muffin with homemade mascarpone cheese and local honey, or cooking up a big, happy pot of homemade marinara sauce to dress your whole grain pasta. Eating better isn’t just about eating foods that are good for you. It’s about exploring new foods, cooking them with soul, and eating mindfully. As a starting point, I’m going to try Scott Cooney’s “world’s best oatmeal.”

I’m excited to learn more, and I invite to share your wisdom, thoughts, and ideas. Perhaps we’ll get healthier together.

Image Credits: Whole Grains Council and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources via flickr/CC

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