Go for the Grain

Tips to work more whole grains into your diet

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Whole grains are among the hottest food trends. Between 2000 and 2010 the claims relating to the benefits of whole grains soared nearly 20-fold to more than 3,200 new products.*

My Plate and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans echoed the previous guidelines to make half your grains "whole." But unfortunately, most Americans average less than one serving per day.

Adults should aim for 48 grams or more each day of whole grains.

Benefits of Whole Grains

Eating a diet rich in whole grains may provide multiple health benefits from weight control to reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer.

The beauty of whole grains is they are healthy, nutritious, delicious and self-limiting. Most whole grains are also high in fiber and the bulk of the grain makes it hard to overeat so they help control calorie intake.

Whole grains can be an excellent source of fiber, but not all whole grains are good sources of fiber. Whole wheat contains the highest amount of fiber and brown rice contains the least.

Will the Real Whole Grain Please Stand Up?

Scan the bread, cereal or snack aisle and virtually every package touts some kind of nutritional wholegrain goodness. But not all of them actually are whole grain. We're surrounded by terms such as multigrain, 100% wheat, cracked wheat, organic, pumpernickel, bran and stone ground. These all sound like healthy whole grains, but none of these descriptions actually indicate whole grain.

To know if you are really getting a whole grain product you need to read the list of ingredients. Look for the word "whole" in front of the type of grain listed as the first ingredient on the list. Exceptions are rolled oats, rolled wheat and brown rice that are always whole.

You also can look for the whole grain stamp which clearly indicates the grams of whole grains per serving and at least one good serving. Another easy way to find whole grains is to look for the FDA-approved health claim that reads, "In a low fat diet, whole grain foods may reduce the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancers." This is found on whole-grain products that contain at least 51% whole-grain flour (by weight) and are low in fat, saturated fat and cholesterol.

Be careful with foods that say "made with whole grains," which could mean there is more refined grain than whole grain. And, don't let brown in color confuse you because some manufacturers add molasses to change white refined products to look like whole grains.

What Makes It Whole?

Whole grains are intact kernels that contain 100% of the entire grain seed including the bran, germ and endosperm. Grains that have been processed (e.g., crushed, cracked, rolled, extruded and/or cooked) should deliver roughly the same balance of nutrients.

The most popular whole grains are whole wheat, whole corn, oats and brown rice, but these are just the tip of the iceberg. Barley, bulgur (cracked wheat), quinoa, rye, wild rice, buckwheat, millet and sorghum are less familiar, but just as healthy as whole grains.

Limitations of Refined Grains

Much of the vitamins, minerals and fiber are removed in the processing of refined grains. After the processing, the flour is enriched with certain vitamins. The naturally occurring nutrient goodness is stripped away and as a result, the enriched flour becomes a carbohydrate that is rapidly absorbed because there is little to no fiber. When carbohydrates include fiber, they are absorbed slower and can aid in weight loss and diabetes control.

Tips to Boost Whole Grains

Be adventurous and try some of the new whole grains that are newly reformulated whole grain products that use lighter whole wheats and pulverize them using new processing techniques to make them look and taste more like white flour.

The food industry has done its part by offering a wide assortment of whole grain choices to cover everything from cereals to snacks and side dishes.

Easy ways to work whole grains into your diet:

  • Start the day with a high fiber whole grain cereal
  • Enjoy a sandwich on a whole grain wrap, bread, bagel or English muffin
  • Stir fry veggies and serve over brown rice
  • Make croutons from yesterday's whole grain baguette
  • Use cornbread to make stuffing
  • Spread whole wheat pitas with hummus
  • Toast corn tortillas to serve with salsa
  • Make your own granola with whole oats
  • Use whole grain pretzels or crackers to coat chicken or fish
  • Try a whole grain medley with quinoa, nuts and veggies
  • Replace potatoes with bulgur or whole wheat pasta
  • Prepare pizza with a whole wheat crust
  • Add oats to your meatloaf
  • In recipes, try replacing whole wheat flour for half the all-purpose flour 

* "MCP-1708: Whole Grain and High Fiber Foods – A Global Strategic Business Report," Global Industry Analysts, Inc., April 2012