Grains are seeds of grasses cultivated for food. They basically come in two varieties – whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains are intact seeds with their bran, germ, and endosperm. Click here to see a whole grain. The bran is the outer layer of the seed and contains mostly fiber. The endosperm is the largest part of the seed and contains small amounts of vitamins and minerals. The germ is the part of the seed from which a new plant sprouts and is a concentrated source of nutrients. Examples of whole grains (and foods made from them) are wheat berries, whole wheat bread, rolled oats, steel-cut oats, brown rice, buckwheat, quinoa, bulgur, millet, barley, cornmeal, and rye.
Refined grains, on the other hand, usually have their bran and germ removed in the milling process leaving only the endosperm. This is done to give the grain a finer texture and a longer shelf-life. Examples of refined grains are white rice, white flour, de-germed cornmeal, and white bread. Most refined grains are enriched, which means certain B vitamins and iron are added back after milling. However fiber is not added back to enriched grains. Whole grains are healthier choices than refined grains.
Why Are Whole Grains Healthier?
- Whole grains are healthier because they contain more fiber than refined grains. High fiber diets are associated with lower cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
- The fiber in whole grains also helps prevent constipation and diverticular disease (diverticulosis).
- Whole grains contain more nutrients than refined grains. Some or these nutrients are magnesium, selenium, iron, vitamin E, and some B vitamins (riboflavin, folate, thiamin, niacin). These nutrients are important in many biological functions like metabolism, a healthy nervous system, a healthy immune system, carrying oxygen in the blood, helping the body form red blood cells, and building bones.
- The body also digests whole grains slower than refined grains preventing blood sugar and insulin levels from rising and falling too quickly. This better control of blood sugar and insulin can delay hunger and prevent the development of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
A Word of Caution
If you are a woman who is pregnant or could become pregnant, you need to make sure you get enough folic acid. Folic acid is a B vitamin that is important in preventing certain types of birth defects. You can get folic acid from taking a multivitamin pill everyday and also from using enriched grains that have been fortified with folic acid. You should talk to your doctor about how much folic acid you need, and how you should get it.
Tips To Help You Eat Whole Grains
- Eat whole grains for breakfast. Start the day with a bowl of whole-grain cereal. If you like hot cereals, try old-fashioned or steel-cut oats. You can also cook whole grains to make a hot breakfast cereal or porridge. If you prefer cold cereal, look at the ingredients list to make sure the first ingredient is a whole grain. Shredded wheat is a good whole grain cereal.
- Try whole-grain breads. Choose breads made from whole grains instead of from refined grains. Check the label to make sure the first ingredient has the word “whole.” Breads are often high in sodium so do not eat too much.
- Try whole-grain bagels. Instead of plain bagels, try whole-grain bagels.
- Try brown rice. Cook up some brown rice instead of white rice to accompany a meal. You could also cook other whole grains like bulgur, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, or hulled barley as tasty side dishes.
- Try whole-wheat pasta. Whole wheat pasta can be a delicious alternative to plain pasta.
- Try whole grains in soups. Feature whole grains like wild rice and barley in soups, stews, casseroles, and salads.
- Snack on popcorn. Popcorn is a whole grain and is a healthy snack when made with little or no added salt or butter.
- Bake with whole-wheat flour. If you bake, try whole-wheat flour instead of white flour.
Eating a variety of whole grains ensures you get more nutrients and also makes your meals and snacks more interesting.