If you have heard grains don’t belong in a standard diet regimen, you have been deceived. According to Mayo Clinic, whole grains are an extremely important part of a healthy diet. For most people, they provide more benefits than risks. And as long as you know the difference between “good” grains and “bad” grains, you don’t have to say goodbye to bread, pasta, or rice. Rejoice!
Once you know the difference between healthy and unhealthy grains — and the healthiest of them all — you can actually add loads of nutrition to every meal. Here’s why whole grains matter, the best ones you can buy, and how they will improve your life.
Why do people say grains are bad?
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding grains. Some people call them out for contributing too many unnecessary carbohydrates to your diet. Many even go as far as blaming calories, starch, and gluten for the rise in a number of chronic diseases.
The truth is, too many misunderstand the difference between whole grains — the food — and foods made with processed flour. While it’s true that many processed foods are high in sugar and grossly unhealthy — and also happen to contain grains — not all grains belong on the “do not eat” list.
In fact, a diet without whole grains might even put your health at risk.
There’s more than one type of grain. Even though many grains aren’t healthy, whole grains themselves are some of the healthiest foods you can eat.
Here’s a deeper look at the three main types of grains — and why only one of them belongs on your grocery shopping list.
These are the least healthy forms of grains you can find. These grains start out as whole grains, but go through a type of food processing that removes the most nutritious parts of every grain. Refined grains lack fiber and many beneficial vitamins and minerals.
Manufacturers mostly refine their grains to give their products a smooth texture and extend their shelf life. White breads, white pasta, white rice, and anything else made with white flour falls under the refined grain umbrella. Many of your favorite processed junk foods, like cookies, crackers, and pastries, contain white flour as a core ingredient.
These are refined grains with many nutrients added back in after stripping the original grain of its nutrition. While these types of grains might technically provide more health benefits than non-enriched refined grains, many of their nutrients disappear when further processed.
Like refined grains, enriched and fortified grains (enriched grains with extra vitamins and minerals added in) lack fiber. This is actually one of the major reasons whole grains provide the most health benefits compared to both types of refined grains.
Whole grains are as close to the originally harvested grain as you can get. You might also call them complete grains, because they aren’t missing any of their core components. All the nutrition they had before harvesting is still there. Plus, whole grains are rich in fiber, as well as nutrients like magnesium and potassium — important things refined grains don’t have.
You will find whole grains sold as their own product, like brown rice, or as ingredients in other, much healthier products, like whole grain instant oatmeal or quinoa burgers. You still have to purchase with caution, as food labeling can make some processed foods’ whole grain “status” confusing. But we’ll get to that toward the end of this article.
For now, let’s look at some of the healthiest whole grains out there — and why you need to start eating them now, if you haven’t already.
When you have the option to choose between white rice and brown rice, chances are, you choose white. It has a different texture and taste. It’s also easier to add your own flavors to white rice, since it’s often rather plain when you eat it by itself.
Unfortunately, white rice consists of refined grains. That’s why its texture is a little smoother than brown rice — it’s been milled for that exact purpose. As much as you might love white rice with your orange chicken, you’re missing out on a ton of benefits white rice simply does not offer.
Switching from white to brown rice can make a huge difference in your health, though. Brown rice provides very few calories per cooked cup. You can substitute it into a number of dishes to make them healthier, since it’s loaded with fiber and rich in a variety of vitamins and minerals. It’s also gluten-free.
This grain contains small amounts of calories and a huge dose of fiber. It doesn’t take as long to cook as other grains, so it’s a very convenient cooking staple in your home kitchen. Bulgur actually isn’t as unfamiliar as it might seem. It comes from a grain you’ve eaten plenty of times in your life before.
When you look for bulgur at the store, you’ll find it labeled as “bulgur wheat.” That’s right — bulgur and wheat share a very close connection. To make bulgur, you actually simmer and bake whole wheat kernels. Therefore, while this grain provides many health benefits, it’s not safe for everyone. Avoid bulgur if you are allergic to wheat or cannot eat gluten (found in wheat and wheat products).
Pronounced keen-wah, this grain has all but taken over the grain craze — and that’s fine. It’s much healthier than your average packet of instant oatmeal or bowl full of white rice. Like many other whole grains, it’s extremely versatile. You can find ways to incorporate it into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even a host of healthy snacks.
Spelt’s health benefits make it worth a taste. It has the potential to boost your immunity, strengthen your bones, lower your cholesterol, and improve your digestion. Most of the things you can make with wheat flour, you can make with spelt. This includes bread, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, and even pizza crust.
Instant, pre-flavored oatmeal usually isn’t healthy. However, if you start out with whole oats and go from there, you’re in for an extremely healthy breakfast. Oats get a bad rap because they’re often used in processed foods like granola bars. On their own, they’re very good for you. These recipes might convince you to give them a try.
If you do end up making your own oatmeal from rolled oats, always mind your toppings. Oatmeal add-ins or add-ons enhance the flavor and even the nutritional value of your oatmeal. However, things like chocolate chips, powdered sugar, and heavily processed granola aren’t your best options. Instead, drizzle in a little honey, pile on the fresh fruit, and enjoy. Feeling a little nutty? In moderation, nuts, though high in calories, boost your oatmeal’s protein and fiber content significantly.
Don’t avoid a food simply because you don’t know how to pronounce it! This grain (pronounced free-kah, in case you were wondering) has also been around for a long time. It’s different from many other whole grains in that it’s harvested early, toasted, and cracked. Don’t miss out on its fiber and protein benefits!
Plain, air popped popcorn is one of the healthiest snacks you can eat. Why? Because corn just might be one of the healthiest grains out there. That’s right — contrary to popular belief, corn is not a vegetable. At least not all the time.
Technically, you could classify corn as a fruit, vegetable, or a grain, depending on how you’re eating it. It’s sometimes considered a fruit because it comes from a seed. In cob form, it’s a vegetable, because it technically comes from the leaves of a plant. Corn kernels (think popcorn), though, count toward your daily dose of grains.
Corn kernels are excellent sources of protein and fiber, even when cooked. Whether you’re enjoying a delicious grilled corn on the cob or incorporate it into your favorite homemade cuisine,
Like many other whole grains on this list, amaranth has been around for centuries. The age of “super grains” has brought it back into the spotlight, though — but that’s not such a terrible thing.
Amaranth’s protein content soars above even the healthiest whole grains. At 9 grams of protein per cooked cup, it’s a grain you don’t want to leave off the table. It’s also something called a complete protein, which means it provides all essential amino acids that keep your body functioning properly. Many grains, though healthy, can’t provide all these amino acids like meat, poultry, and amaranth can.
There’s also some good news for celiacs and anyone who might harbor an annoying non-celiac sensitivity to gluten. Amaranth is gluten-free! No wheat, barley, or rye here! Whatever your reason, if you’re preparing a gluten-free recipe, don’t miss out on all of amaranth’s health benefits. You might even fall in love with the taste.
What will these grains really do for me?
Could you still maintain a healthy life without eating grains? Many people do. However, unless you have celiac disease or an allergy to a specific grain, there’s really no reason to avoid them. You could miss out on plenty of vitamins and minerals. There are also additional health benefits to consuming whole grains regularly in the long term.
According to The Nutrition Source, whole grains contain significant amounts of fiber. This means they’re excellent foods to eat if you’re having trouble keeping your blood sugar under control.
Their high fiber content also means they can help lower your cholesterol.
Looking at the big picture, The Nutrition Source also notes that following current dietary recommendations — making half your daily grains whole — can lower your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even some cancers.
How to tell if a product is REALLY refined grain-free
You’ve probably purchased plenty of foods “made with whole grains” or carrying a “multigrain” label before. Unfortunately, this happens to be one of those cases where iffy labeling actually tricked you into purchasing something you thought was healthy … but it wasn’t.
What “made with whole grains” actually means
When a food is “made with” whole grains, that makes it seem like whatever you’re buying contains nothing but the best grains on the planet. However, just because your favorite cereal is “made with” healthy grains doesn’t mean it’s free of other types of grains.
A food can legally contain both whole and refined grains and use generic phrases like this and “multigrain” to trick you. Most processed foods carrying these labels are just as processed as those lacking whole grains altogether.
But that’s not fair! What do I do now?
You’re taking a risk whenever you read a food’s packaging. Misleading language ropes many consumers into believing they’re making the healthiest choices, even when they aren’t. However, paying attention to what’s on that package can also save you from buying yet another unhealthy food in disguise. You just have to know where to look, and what to look for.
In this case, a food’s ingredients list is the most reliable place to go. If a product contains whole grains, it will say so, or it will call them out by name (see above for examples!). Detecting refined grains isn’t quite as easy, but you can do it. Enriched flour, bran, and wheat germ all describe refined grains — if they’re among the first ingredients, stay away!
You can check out The Whole Grains Council’s tips to shop healthy and help you keep refined grains out of your diet.
The verdict: “true” whole grains are good for your health
When most people criticize grains, they’re likely referring to refined grains — the processed grains present in unhealthy snack foods. White pastas, breads, rice, and flours don’t belong in your diet. But that doesn’t mean whole grains — and foods genuinely made with them — can’t have a place on your plate.
Don’t hesitate to get creative when you cook with whole grains. They’re perfect additions to any breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If you want to lose weight, kick your sugar cravings, and remain in good health, don’t shun grains. Just make sure you’re eating the right ones.