The essential whole grains you need in your diet

Are you eating enough whole grains? You probably aren’t—MyPlate, the latest nutrition guide released by the USDA, recommends at least six 1-ounce servings of whole grains each day for adults. Most importantly, at least half of those servings should be whole grains. Hailed as the ultimate nutritional package, whole grains taste incredibly delicious when mixed into salads, soups, breads, and more. If you think eating grains means carb overload, don’t worry. Whole grains, along with other carbohydrate-containing foods such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes, are some of the healthiest carbohydrates you can eat.

This comprehensive guide answers your questions and shows you how easy it is to include more whole grains in your diet.

What are whole grains?

Grains are edible plant seeds. A grain is “whole grain” if it contains the three key parts of the seed: bran, germ, and endosperm. Whole grains fall into one of two categories: grains and pseudo-grains. Cereals come from cereal grasses such as wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley, sorghum, rye, and millet. Pseudocereals are cooked and eaten in a similar way, but they don’t come from grasses—grains in this category include quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth.

In fact, all grains start out as whole grains, but not all end up on the shelf as such. Key parts of the seed are removed during milling, a manufacturing process that increases the shelf life of products such as flour. Unfortunately, most of the essential nutrients are lost in this process. Eating whole grains is the only way you can be 100% sure you’re getting the best bang for your buck nutritionally.

Health benefits of whole grains

Whole grains are rich in heart-healthy soluble fiber, which controls appetite while regulating blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In fact, a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet rich in whole grains significantly reduced the risk of heart disease. Whole grains also contain a wealth of antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory benefits.

In terms of how much of your diet should consist of whole grains, MyPlate recommends that at least half of all grains consumed daily be whole grains. Ideally, if you consume six 1-ounce servings of grains each day, three of those servings will be whole grains. MyPlate offers several common one-ounce equivalents as a resource. For example, one slice of whole-wheat bread would count as one 1-ounce serving.

Are whole grains gluten-free?

Absolutely – there are tons of fantastic gluten-free grains like brown rice, quinoa, corn and more. Grains to avoid are wheat (such as wheat berries, spelt, kamut, farro, and bulgur), rye, barley, and triticale. Oats are technically gluten-free, but have a higher chance of cross-contamination during production. To be safe, choose gluten-free rolled oats, such as Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Rolled Oats.

Photographer: Fred Hardy II, Food Stylist: Margaret Monroe Dickey, Prop Stylist: Shel Royster

The best whole grains to eat

While all whole grains are superstars, many have unique characteristics and health benefits not found in other grains. Here are the nine that really shine.

1. Bulgur

A key ingredient in the Middle Eastern staple, tabbouleh, bulgur is a type of wheat that can be used in so many delicious ways. It only takes a few minutes to cook and also contains the most fiber of any grain.

2. Rice

This extremely versatile grain is widely available and also a gluten-free option. Brown rice has slightly more fiber and protein than white rice, which can help make your meal more filling. You can serve it alongside this Garlic Butter Roasted Salmon with Potatoes and Asparagus or in Fajita-inspired Chicken Stuffed Peppers.

3. Corn

Often categorized as a vegetable, corn can also be considered a grain. Corn in its purest form is full of antioxidants. Look for it in an assortment of colors—yellow, white, blue, and even purple—and eat it straight from the cob or toast the kernels for popcorn.

4. Oatmeal

From old-fashioned to steel-cut, oats are a breakfast staple that’s guaranteed to be a whole grain, even if they’re quickly made. While all grains are high in fiber, oats contain a special type called beta-glucan that is particularly powerful at lowering cholesterol. Bake it into oatmeal muffins or make a meal for a batch of overnight oats!

5. Faro

This light brown, medium-sized ancient grain is a type of wheat and is similar in appearance, texture and taste to wheat berries. Restaurant chefs especially value farro for its delightfully chewy texture and sweet flavor.

6. Teph

Don’t let the small size fool you—this ancient gluten-free grain offers huge health benefits. Teff, a type of millet, has significantly more calcium and iron than other grains. Its small size makes it ideal for baking energy bars and breads like injera, a spongy flatbread popular in Ethiopian cuisine.

7. Sorghum

Grown largely in the United States for livestock feed, sorghum has recently been embraced for its versatility by the gluten-free community. Cooked sorghum has a chewy texture similar to Israeli couscous, while popped sorghum is a pint-sized version of popcorn. Sorghum flour is also often used in gluten-free baking.

8. Quinoa

Quick to prepare, gluten-free and available in a range of colors from white to red, quinoa is a source of protein. This ancient grain is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is also popular for its mild taste, fine chewiness and flexibility.

9. Buckwheat

Don’t be fooled by the name – buckwheat is actually gluten-free and closely related to sorrel and rhubarb. However, its seeds are rich in carbohydrates and lend themselves to the same uses as wheat. Use buckwheat flour as a base for pancake and waffle mixes or whole buckwheat for salads or soups.

How to buy whole grains

Look for whole grains at your local grocery store, either in the bulk food section, or in the rice or pasta section. Some stores also carry products in the “health foods” or international aisle. Bob’s Red Mill is a widely distributed brand that produces almost every whole grain in existence. If you can’t find a particular product in stores, consider ordering from an online retailer.

To make sure you’re buying 100% whole grains, check the package label. First and foremost, scan the ingredients list. Look for the word “whole grain” before grains (such as whole grain) and watch out for flours that are refined or enriched. Some products may display the Whole Grains Stamp, an indicator created by the Whole Grains Council to show consumers the total amount of whole grains in a product.

Whole grain recipes and ideas

Whole grains lend themselves to a plethora of savory and sweet applications from breakfast to dinner and beyond. Here are the best ways to include them in your diet.

Salmon Rice Bowl

Chickpea and Quinoa Bowl with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

The Green Bowl of the Goddess Pharo

Oatmeal with cinnamon

Baked banana and nut oatmeal cups

Black Bean Quinoa Pan Casserole

Bulgur and bean salad

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