Whole Grains 101
Whole grain foods like bread and pasta are made from all parts of the grain—germ, endosperm, and bran—and include all the nutrients of the grain kernel. High in fiber and other nutrients, whole grains have been shown to improve digestion, lower blood pressure, and decrease the risk of heart disease and diabetes.
When choosing whole grains, look for the most minimally processed form you can. Start by looking for the word “whole” on the ingredient list (e.g. “100% whole wheat”) to make sure that you’re getting a true whole grain product, and then check the label to ensure that you’re selecting foods with at least 3 g of fiber per serving. Eating steel cut oatmeal for breakfast, 100% whole grain bread at lunch, or a small serving of quinoa for dinner are great ways to keep your blood sugar and energy levels constant.
Benefits of Whole Grains
Helps maintain blood sugar and energy levels.
It’s the fiber in these foods that helps to create sustainable energy while maintaining gut and heart health. Our bodies need glucose to feed the brain and the body. In order to get glucose into the cell, our body releases insulin which allows our cells to use the needed fuel. The goal is to have steady and stable glucose breakdown to help stabilize insulin levels. The fiber in foods slows down digestion, which means that glucose is released slower, therefore providing energy for a longer period and producing less of an insulin spike. Glucose from processed foods (white breads or pretzels, for example) release quicker, causing an insulin spike and the quick removal and shuttling of glucose from the blood stream into the cell.
Aids in weight loss.
Choosing whole grains that are rich in fiber (at least 3 grams per serving) will help you feel fuller, longer. This means that you’ll be less likely to overeat later. One important thing to remember is that whole grains can be high in calories. When making your meals, read food labels carefully and measure out your servings. Read “Portion Sizes 101” for tips to help you eat the proper portions.
Increases nutrient intake.
Whole grains are made from the entire grain seed, so you get more nutrients on your plate. Nutrients in whole grains vary, so eating a variety of the grains listed below can increase and improve your nutrient intake. Based on nutrient information and data from the Council of Whole Grains, we’ve ranked whole grains from one to nine. For more information on each grain, read the section “Common Types of Whole Grains.”
- Teff, Wheat, Barley
- Spelt and Oats
- Rye and Buckwheat
- Brown Rice
Nutrients Found in Whole Grains
Below is a list of nutrients that can be found in whole grains.
- Protein – Used to rebuild and repair the body and helps boost immunity.
- Fiber – Fiber helps you feel full, aids in digestion, improves heart health, and stabilizes energy.
- Iron – Iron helps make key components in the body that carry and store oxygen in cells and muscles.
- Magnesium – This essential mineral is required for optimal nerve function, metabolism, body temperature regulation, and a healthy immune system.
- Phosphorus – This essential mineral is present in every cell of the body. It plays a key role in the development of bones and teeth, but also helps with the repair, growth and maintenance of our cells
- Zinc – Zinc is a key nutrient that strengthens the immune system by helping to heal wounds and fight off bacteria and viruses.
- Copper – Copper is a support mineral because it helps us to absorb iron. It also plays a role in regulating our blood pressure, heart rate, and keeping your skin and hair healthy.
- Manganese – This mineral helps manage stress within your cells. It also plays a key role in optimizing metabolism and forming healthy cartilage and bone.
- Selenium – You only need small amounts of this powerful mineral, but it plays a big role in protecting your cells from damage, regulating your thyroid, and maintaining your immune system.
- B Vitamins – This family of vitamins is key to helping your body produce energy from food.
- B1 (Thiamin) – B1 plays a key role in regulating energy and overall metabolism.
- B2 (Riboflavin) – B2 is a contributor in energy production and protein metabolism.
- B3 (Niacin) – B3 plays a role in providing fuel for aerobic and anaerobic activity.
- B6 (Pyridoxine) – B6 plays a role in protein metabolism and assists with the creation of neurotransmitters that impact movement.
- Folic Acid – Folic Acid aids in amino acid metabolism and may reduce birth defects and improve overall heart health.
Common Types of Whole Grains
Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wa”) is often referred to as a “superfood,” and this ancient grain lives up to the hype. This low-carb grain has twice the amount of protein (9 g per cup) compared to other grains, and it’s considered a “complete protein,” meaning that it has all the amino acids your body needs to build muscle. Quinoa is also high in fiber (5 grams per cup), making it great for digestion and weight loss.
This sweet grain has been linked to lower blood pressure, decreased cholesterol, and increased immunity. It’s also high in iron and lysine, an amino acid not found in many other grains.
Chewy spelt berries offer a rich flavor and lots of texture. This high-protein grain is an excellent source of manganese, copper, zinc, B complex vitamins, and simple and complex carbohydrate, which play a role in blood clotting and increased immunity. It’s also high in fiber.
Farro, also known as emmer, is a high-fiber, high-protein grain and is considered a complete protein. This makes it ideal for vegetarians or any looking for a plant-based food high in protein. One cup of faro has 100% of the recommended daily value for iron. It’s also typically safe for people with gluten allergies to eat.
Buckwheat, also known as kasha when it’s toasted, is high in the amino acid lysine, protein, calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, and iron. While buckwheat is often thought of as a cereal grain, it’s actually a fruit seed. This makes it ideal for people who suffer from wheat or gluten allergies.
High in fiber (the most of all grains) and protein, barley helps regulate sugar levels for up to 10 hours after eating. It’s also low in calories, contains eight essential amino acids, and is high in B vitamins, iron, copper, manganese, and selenium. These nutrients help improve immunity and boost metabolism.
The smallest of all the grains, teff is made of mostly bran and germ, making it a highly nutrient dense grain. It contains high-quality carbohydrates, proteins (more than wheat), and fiber, and is high in iron (as much as wheat and barley) and calcium (40 percent of the recommended daily value). It’s also gluten-free.
A form of wheat that’s been enjoyed by many cultures since the Ancient Egyptians, Kamut is high in protein, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. It’s also high in selenium, zinc, and magnesium, and essential fatty acids, which help increase good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol.
A staple in many Asian and African countries, millet has the highest iron content with the exception of amaranth and quinoa. It’s also high in calcium, phosphorous, manganese, zinc, and B vitamins. This grain is easily digestible, believed to be the grain least likely to cause allergic reactions, and helpful in decreasing stomach ulcers.
The most widespread cereal crop in the world, wheat is found in bread products, crackers, pasta, and pastries. Eating products made with whole wheat flour, the unprocessed version of wheat, helps regulate weight, lower diabetes risk, and decrease inflammation in the body. Wheat is also high in fiber, magnesium, and manganese.
The grain with the highest amount of soluble fiber, oat helps increase satiety, lower bad cholesterol, and improve heart health. This grain is most often found in rolled or crushed oatmeal and contains the plant-like protein avenalin.
Corn, also known as maize, is high in fiber and carbohydrates and helps you maintain energy levels and improves digestion. It’s also high in vitamins A, C, and E, folic acid, essential minerals, and antioxidants.
A food staple throughout the world, brown rice is one of the healthiest foods you can eat. Eating brown rice has been linked to weight control, a decreased risk of certain types of cancers, and increased heart health. One cup of brown rice has just 2 g of fat, no cholesterol, and 5 g of protein.
Einkorn is the purest form of wheat. It’s high in fiber and protein and helps balance blood sugar. It’s also high in essential fatty acids. Einkorn is a healthy option for people suffering from gluten intolerances.
A cereal grain, rye has been shown to increase weight loss, decrease diabetes risk, and improve heart and digestive health. This high-fiber grain is high in a variety of nutrients, including manganese, phosphorus, and magnesium.
Sprouted grains are unprocessed grains that are made by germinating seeds, nuts, and grain, which are then eaten raw or cooked. Easily digestible, sprouts are high in fiber, protein, and a variety of vitamins and minerals. They’ve been linked to increased energy.