Grains are also known as kernels. They are the seed of a plant and are made of three main parts: the bran, endosperm and germ. The bran is the outer layer of a grain and has fiber, vitamins, minerals and other antioxidants. The middle layer is the endosperm, which has starchy carbohydrates, protein and some vitamins and minerals. The innermost part is the germ, which has vitamins, minerals, healthy fats and other antioxidants.
Grains need to be processed in some way to make them easier to eat, but the nutrients are still intact.
Here are a few examples of this minimal processing:
Even after undergoing these forms of processing, the main three parts of a grain remain, so they’re considered a whole grain. Some examples of whole grains are oatmeal, popcorn, barley, bulger, quinoa and any whole wheat product.
Refined grains, however, are mostly the starchy endosperm. They are missing the bran and germ along with the many nutrients those parts contain. Refined grains are commonly used in baked goods and snack foods.
Enriched grains can be whole or refined grains. They have some B vitamins and iron added to them, but the levels of nutrients are not the same as those in whole grains.
Sprouted grains have just started to grow into a new plant, and this process can make some nutrients, including gluten, easier to digest. Using sprouted wheat for making bread requires less kneading and proofing and even results in bread with a longer shelf life.
Make the Switch from Refined to Whole Grains
- Swap white bread for 100% whole grain bread. “Whole” should be in the first ingredient.
- Add grains like barley, bulgur, oats or quinoa to soups and salads for flavor and variety.
- Enjoy popcorn for a snack instead of crackers made from refined grains.
- Read the label to choose grain products with more fiber.
For specific recipes, visit Med Instead of Meds to help you incorporate whole grains into a Mediterranean-style eating pattern. If you want more, visit The Whole Grains Council, where you can get step-by-step instructions for cooking your way from amaranth to wild rice.
- Whole grains take longer to cook than refined versions, but these can be ready in 30 minutes or less: amaranth, buckwheat, grits, oats, popcorn and quinoa.
- Make a large batch of whole grains and then freeze in smaller containers. When you’re ready to eat them, defrost, heat and serve.
Whole grains are high in dietary fiber, which may help with cholesterol, blood sugar, weight management, and diverticulosis as well as reduce the risk of some cancers. The American Heart Association recommends including fiber-rich foods like whole grains for their ability to lower the risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. The American Institute for Cancer Research says that plant-based foods like whole grains are important for cancer prevention because of the fiber, phytochemicals and other nutrients they contain. If you want to learn more, The Whole Grains Council has a running list of research studies related to whole grains.
Most Americans consume less than half of the recommended 25-38 grams of fiber per day, and whole grains are a great way to meet that target. One serving of oatmeal (old fashioned, quick 1-minute or steel cut) has 4 grams of fiber. Barley has 5 grams of fiber. Quinoa has 3 grams of fiber and even grits have 2 grams of fiber, which is as much as brown rice.
In addition to helping us feel more satisfied during and after meals, fiber is a prebiotic, so it can feed the helpful bacteria in our gut. Probiotics are bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt, aged cheeses, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh and pickles. They may increase the good bacteria in the intestines, also known as our gut, and work best when you eat enough prebiotics like fiber.
Thinking of Going Gluten-Free?
Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley and rye that some people have trouble digesting or that damages the small intestine in people who have celiac disease. You may have seen food packaging with “gluten-free” on the label and thought it was a healthier option. Surely something with free on it is a good choice! The gluten-free label is incredibly helpful for those who have celiac disease because as Celiac Disease Foundation explains, a strict gluten-free diet is the only way to treat the disease. However, it’s not necessary to avoid gluten if you don’t have a medical condition.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of celiac disease or other digestive issues, it’s best to consult with a medical provider like a gastroenterologist. They can investigate potential causes and a registered dietitian can help develop an individualized plan. If you have Celiac Disease or a food allergy, you may be interested in a regular support group through WakeMed on the 3rd Monday of each month from 7-8pm.
Even if you need to avoid gluten, you can still enjoy many whole grains, like amaranth, buckwheat, brown rice, corn, grits, polenta, millet, oats and quinoa.
The next time you’re shopping, look past the health claims on the front of the package and flip it over to see what’s inside. The most important things to look for on the label of a product made with grains is first, the main ingredient – “Is it a whole grain?” – second, the fiber content – “Is the fiber still in the food?” – and last, the added sugar. After all, a gluten-free dessert is still a dessert.