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What Are Whole Grains and Why You Should Be Eating Them

Whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals without the fat. Find out how much whole grain should be in your diet.

Everything from cereal to cookies are boasting whole grains. Their nutritional benefit is no secret, but what exactly makes a grain whole? Here's everything you need to know about switching to whole grains.

Whole vs. Refined

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) defines a whole grain as the entire grain -- bran, germ and endosperm (starchy component). Whole grains are simply not as processed as refined grains, which have their bran and germ removed in a process called milling. As a result, whole grains tend to have a heartier, less uniform texture. 

Why You Should Love Them

Whole grains are rich in fiber and nutrients like potassium, selenium and magnesium. They're typically low in fat and sodium. According to the Mayo Clinic, eating whole grains reduces your risk for medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. Also, the fiber in whole grains promotes regularity to keep your digestive system on track and keeps you full longer after a meal, helping you manage your caloric intake.

A study conducted in 2007 and published in PLoS Medicine showed a diet rich in whole grains is an important step in preventing type 2 diabetes. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed eating whole grains helped lower cholesterol, levels of C-reactive protein and body fat located in the abdomen. For the study, 50 obese men and women were told to eat either a diet of whole grains or refined grains for 12 weeks, as part of a weight loss plan.

Some Great Grains

So now you know all about whole grains and are dying to try them, right? So what should you buy? Here are six of the best whole grains to have in your pantry, according to the Whole Grains Council:

  1. Teff (Eragrostis tef):
    Teff may be the smallest grain around, but it's packed with protein (10 g per serving), calcium (123 mg per serving) and fiber (7 g per serving). This versatile grain is a type of millet that has a sweeter taste, similar to molasses, making it a popular choice for breakfast. It's been a main food source for Ethiopians living in the highlands for centuries. 
  2. Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.):
    A favorite of the Incas and Aztecs, amaranth is known for its vitamins minerals. Amaranth has 30 percent more protein than rice and double the fiber, with high levels of lysine, an amino acid that helps produce carnitine. Carnitine turns fatty acid into energy, helping to lower cholesterol and reduce weight.
  3. Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum):
    One of the more common whole grains, buckwheat can be added to salads, stir-fry or cooked in place of oatmeal. Buckwheat is actually a fruit and is high in fiber with a nutty taste. Buckwheat also contains a high amount of rutin, which reinforces vitamin C for greater antioxidant benefits. It's been shown to lower cholesterol and high blood pressure.
  4. Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa):
    Another favorite of the Incas, quinoa contains all nine amino acids, with particularly high levels of cystine, methionine and lysine. Four ounces of this grain also provides 22 g of protein along with manganese, calcium and zinc. Quinoa can also help reduce cholesterol as well as high blood pressure, while reducing your risk for diseases like diabetes.
  5. Bulgur (Triticum ssp.):
    Bulgur is produced from wheat kernels (typically durum wheat) that have first been boiled, then dried and finally cracked and sorted by size. Bulgur contains more fiber than oats, millet or quinoa and it takes about 10 minutes to cook, similar to pasta. Eating whole wheat reduces your risk for stroke, inflammation, type 2 diabetes, asthma and heart disease and can improve weight and blood pressure.
  6. Millet (Panicum miliaceum):
    Commonly used in the production of finished products like bread or even beer, millet looks similar to quinoa. In the United States, you most often find this grain in bird food. It's particularly high in magnesium as well as antioxidants, which can help with diabetes prevention and treatment (controlling blood sugar levels) as well as inflammation.

These grains can be used in place of any refined grain, so no special recipes or losing the foods you love, just a small change that can make a big difference.

Eating Whole Grains

According to the Whole Grains Council, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines suggests half of the grains you consume daily be whole grains, equaling three to five servings a day, depending on age. They define a serving as one slice of bread, one small muffin, one cup of cereal, one half cup of rice, bulgur, pasta or cooked cereal and one ounce of dry pasta, rice or grain.

Switching to whole grains is an easy way to change your diet for the better. These grains help you feel satiated without the crash of refined products. Make the switch today for better health!


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