You’ve probably heard that whole grains are good for you. But do you know why?
There are lots of strategies for healthier eating, including eating vegan or vegetarian or just focusing on clean, green foods for a majority of your meals. And making sure to eat plenty of whole grains is one more strategy to add to the list, especially if you’re someone who loves a good carb (and who doesn’t?).
Humans have been eating grains for at least 75,000 years, but refined grains only made their entry about 200 years ago. That means that for the majority of human existence, our bodies have been set up to prefer whole grain varieties, and this distinction is something you might have learned the hard way if consuming refined grains causes you to experience stomach distress or difficulties staying full and satisfied.
Fortunately, you don’t have to mill your own grain in order to avoid the processed stuff. Delicious whole grains are readily accessible at most grocery stores, and they’re easy to work into your diet once you know what you’re looking for. With that in mind, here are more than a dozen whole grains to add to your shopping list, plus simple serving ideas to get you inspired in the kitchen.
What Are Whole Grains?
Whole grains are grains that contain all three parts of the grain kernel: the bran, germ, and endosperm. Another way to think of them is as intact grains, since no part of the kernel is removed in processing.
There’s a reason that whole grains are considered “good grains.” Keeping the grain kernel whole means that you get all of its nutrients, which includes fiber from the bran, protein and carbohydrates from the endosperm, and healthy fats and phytochemicals from the germ. All parts of the grain kernel also contain a healthy dose of vitamins and minerals, though the bran and the germ are where you’ll find the bulk of grain’s B vitamins, copper, zinc, vitamin E, iron, and magnesium.
There are a lot of health benefits to consuming whole grains. Increased fiber intake supports your digestive system and helps your blood sugar stay steady. Other nutritional components, such as phytochemicals, can reduce your risk of chronic illness. It’s clear then why eating more whole grains is good for you—and why it can make such a big difference in how you feel.
Whole Grains vs. Refined Grains
The industrialization of grain milling in the 19th century led to the introduction of refined grains, which are grains that are stripped of their bran and germ to contain only the endosperm. This is the starchy middle layer of the grain kernel, and it’s the easiest to chew and digest, making it ideal for soft breads and other airy baked goods.
Where refined grains fall short is that, without the bran and germ, they’re missing a huge amount of their nutrients. Many manufacturers fortify refined grains and add back in certain vitamins and minerals, but some nutrients—like phytochemicals—cannot be added back to the processed grain, which can then leave some unwanted gaps in your diet.
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16 Types of Whole Grains
What are examples of whole grains? There are a bunch, including gluten-free whole grains for those with Celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Whether you’re looking for more whole grains in your meals or are just on the hunt for healthier snacking options, here are 16 whole grains that are definitely worth digging into.
Homemade popcorn is one of the healthiest whole grain snacks around, but avoid the pre-bagged microwave varieties if you can, since the interior coating may contain harmful carcinogens.
As far as grains go, popcorn is particularly high in fiber, with more than 50% of your daily recommended value per 100 grams. It’s also naturally gluten-free, making it a fantastic way to get more fiber in your diet if you struggle with gluten intolerance.
Quinoa is an ancient South American grain that accomplishes the impressive feat of containing all nine essential amino acids. It also contains inflammation-fighting phytochemicals that make it a good choice if grains tend to make you feel heavy or bloated.
Corn tends to get a bad rap, and unsurprisingly so considering it’s a staple ingredient in a lot of processed foods. But in its natural form it’s a healthy whole grain that’s packed with nutrients and antioxidants. Opt for organic on-the-cob corn if possible, then remove the kernels and add to recipes like pasta, soup, and frittatas.
Oatmeal is a go-to healthy whole grain breakfast option that just so happens to contain an extra-beneficial type of fiber known as beta-glucan fiber. Benefits of beta-glucan fiber range from increased feelings of fullness to reduced blood sugar and insulin levels. It also supports the development of good bacteria in the gut, which can in turn help you ward off illness.
Gluten-free? Yes, but some packaged oatmeal may be processed in facilities that also process gluten, so check the label if you’re especially sensitive.
Barley is one of the oldest domesticated grains, having had a place on the table for about 10,000 years or so.
There are two types of barley—pearled and hulled—but only hulled is considered to be a whole grain. Try it as an alternative to oatmeal for a quick breakfast, or use it as the base for a flavorful salad or side dish at lunch or dinner.
Farro is a type of wheat, even if it looks more like barley or rice. It’s also nutty, chewy, and packed with protein, making it a great base for a healthy meatless dinner. Not sure how to use it? Try stir-frying it with tofu, veggies, and soy sauce for a farro “fried rice” that’s significantly more filling than the real deal.
As far as misnomers go, buckwheat—which is not wheat at all but the seeds and husk from a plant related to rhubarb—is high up on the list. Yet despite the confusing name, buckwheat is a pretty basic whole grain that can be enjoyed in many ways. Look to the seeds for fiber, phosphorus, copper, and iron, and try out buckwheat husks for resistant starch, a unique type of fiber that feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut.
You might be most familiar with millet as a main ingredient in birdseed, but hear us out on this one. Millet is an ancient grain that’s incredibly popular in many parts of Asia and Africa. There are more than 10 varieties, with pearl millet, proso millet, fox millet, and African millet being the varieties that you’re most likely to find in the U.S. The simplest way to eat it is as a rice replacement or in salads, porridge, and other healthy grain dishes.
Eco-conscious eaters will be glad to know that sorghum is one of the most environmentally responsible whole grains around. This ultra-sustainable ingredient refers to about 25 different species of flowering plants in the grass family, and is a close relative of corn. Cook it like you would rice or quinoa, then combine with any vegetables and proteins you like for a complete and balanced meal.
Rye is part of the wheat family, though it’s actually more nutritious than standard wheat since it doesn’t cause as dramatic of a spike in blood sugar. Notably, however, not all varieties of rye are whole grain, nor are they all equally good for you. Go with dark rye over light, since it’s less likely to be refined, and do enjoy rye spirits in moderation but don’t count them toward your whole grain consumption goals (sorry).
Spelt is another ancient grain and was an important part of the medieval diet. It’s high in carbs and dietary fiber and similar to wheat but with a heartier husk and nuttier flavor. If you like to bake, try swapping spelt flour in for normal all-purpose to get the airiness of refined grains with the nutrients of whole grains. You can also eat spelt grains in stews, risottos, and other tasty entrees and sides.
Bulgur, also known as riffoth, is a partially cooked product made from wheat berries. After an initial parboiling, it’s dried, packaged, and ready to be fully cooked and eaten—usually in a similar manner to couscous or quinoa. If you’ve ever had tabbouleh, you’ve almost certainly had bulgur, since it’s what’s typically used as the grain component in the dish.
If you’ve ever needed proof that good things can come in small packages, look no further than teff, a tiny whole grain that’s big on flavor and nutrition. Teff is a type of annual grass that’s grown in Africa and is part of the millet family. It’s subtly sweet and incredibly light and is perhaps most commonly used in flour form to make injera, the customary flatbread of Ethiopia. This poppy seed-sized grain has plenty of other uses, too, and is easy to swap in for quinoa in recipes.
Einkorn is the whole grain superstar you’ve probably never heard of, despite the fact that it’s the oldest known grain in all of history. This variety of wheat is mostly found in France, Morocco, and Turkey, so don’t be shocked if it’s new to you—or if you can’t readily find it. If you can, however, use it just as you would any refined wheat product, for example as a flour for baking bread, pancakes, or pastries.
15. Whole Wheat
Whole wheat is a cereal grain that you may be most familiar with seeing in the bread aisle as an alternative to bread made with white flour. You can easily distinguish whole wheat bread from white bread by its darker color—a result of having the whole grain intact—but do be careful not to confuse it with plain wheat bread, which can be a misleading way to refer to bread made with refined flour (which is, after all, still wheat).
16. Cracked Wheat
Cracked wheat is what you get when you take wheat berries and crush them up into smaller pieces. Unlike bulgur, though, which is also made from wheat berries, cracked wheat isn’t partially cooked before being packaged, so it does take a bit longer to cook. Use it in salads, sides, and soups, or anywhere else you’d use quinoa, bulgur, or millet.
What Are the Best Whole Grains to Eat?
That depends on your tastes and cooking skills! All of the whole grains on this list are highly nutritious, so it ultimately comes down to your preferences. Because taste and texture can and do vary from grain to grain, try out multiple whole grain ingredients to find what you like best.
In addition, you can find whole grain varieties of a lot of pantry staples, including rice, bread, tortillas, crackers, and pasta, so check the ingredient list when doing your shopping and try to go with whole grain options when you can.
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