Be Less Refined: Eat More Whole Grains

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared as a Health Beyond Barriers podcast on Minds Eye Radio. It was produced in English, Spanish, Bosnian, Vietnamese, and Arabic through a collaboration with LAMP, Language Access Metro Project.

By Hank Dart

Whole grains. For something so often recommended as part of a healthy diet, they can seem pretty elusive.

We sort of know what they are – but not really.

We know we should be eating more of them – but don’t really know how best to do that.

Well, the good news is that whole grains are pretty easy to get a grasp on with just a handful of helpful tips.

But, first, let’s try to answer the question:

Why should we even care about whole grains?

As with most diet recommendations, the quick answer to this question is: for your health.

Whole grains are packed with fiber and other key nutrients and have been found to lower the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers. They can also help keep weight in check and the digestive system running like clockwork.

On top of this, research has found that whole grains can lower the risk of dying prematurely. Results from a study that followed over 74,000 women and 43,000 men for around 25 years showed that those who ate the most whole grains over that time had a nearly 10 percent lower risk of dying from any cause than those who ate the least.

So, whole grains aren’t just an out-of-the-blue recommendation put together by disgruntled dieticians. They can have a real impact on many of the most important – and preventable – diseases.

With that in mind, let’s move on to the next big question:

What are whole grains?

Most of us know what grains are. They are things like wheat, oats, rice, bulgur, and millet. This is an incomplete list, but you get the idea.

In their natural state, grain kernels have three key parts – bran, germ, and endosperm. When a grain contains all three of these it is considered a whole grain.

This is different from “refined” or “enriched” grains – like white rice and white flour – that have the bran and germ removed during processing. Bran and germ are rich in many healthy compounds, like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytoestrogens.

So, now that what we know what they are, we need to ask:

What amount of whole grains should we eat?

The latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that at least half of the grains we eat each day should be whole grains. While that’s a little ambiguous – for most adults, it translates to about 3 – 4 ounces of whole grains every day. That’s the equivalent of around 3 – 4 slices of whole grain bread, or 1½ to 2 cups of cooked brown rice. Every day.

It’s not a huge amount, but it’s enough that it’s important to make sure you have enough healthy whole grain foods on hand. Which begs the question:

What’s the best ways to find healthy whole grain foods at the store?

Luckily, we’re all probably familiar with a number of healthy whole grains, like – 100% whole wheat bread, brown rice, bulgur, rolled oats, and even whole-grain pasta. So to buy more whole grains, all we need to do is take the extra step of actually putting them in our shopping carts more often.

After these easy-to-find foods, it can get a little trickier to identify healthy whole grain foods, but it’s not really that hard.

First, and most important: Let the label be your guide.

Choose foods that have as the first ingredient on the food label a grain that starts with words like “whole grain” or “whole.” The first ingredient in the list is the most common ingredient in the food. So, if the label on your breakfast cereal starts with “whole grain oats,” then whole grain oats are the main ingredient.

This isn’t a perfect system because some foods can have whole grains as a first ingredient but also have a lot of added sugar. Sugary breakfast cereals can be a good example of this. So it’s best to choose whole grain foods that also have little or no added sugar.

It’s also important not to let the color of a food be your only guide. Some dark breads, for example, may seem to have a lot of whole grains in them, but in fact, may have little in any – getting their color from things like molasses.

Now that we know how to find healthy whole grains, let’s ask one final question:

What’s the best way to fit more whole grains into our diet?

The one word answer: slowly.

If you’ve been eating a lot of refined grain foods, moving to whole grains can take some getting used to. Whole grains have an appealing and complex taste, but they do taste different than refined grains. So making the transition slowly gives you time to adjust and build up habits for long term success.

Start by mixing half-and-half white rice and brown rice. Do the same with white pasta and whole-grain pasta – and other grain foods you regularly eat.

Then slowly increase the amount of the whole grain foods. Over time, you may not even miss the refined grain options.

Making healthy whole grain choices doesn’t mean giving up completely on the refined grain foods we like. With a little effort, though, we can add more whole grains into our day and give our diets, and our health, a real boost.

And don’t we all deserve that?

Additional resources

The Nutrition Source – Harvard School of Public Health

Choose My Plate – USDA

Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015 – 2020

Your Disease Risk – Siteman Cancer Center


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2. Ye EQ, Chacko SA, Chou EL, Kugizaki M, Liu S. Greater whole-grain intake is associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain. J Nutr 2012;142:1304-13.

3. Aune D, Chan DS, Lau R, et al. Dietary fibre, whole grains, and risk of colorectal cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective studies. BMJ 2011;343:d6617.

4. Huang T, Xu M, Lee A, Cho S, Qi L. Consumption of whole grains and cereal fiber and total and cause-specific mortality: prospective analysis of 367,442 individuals. BMC Med 2015;13:59.

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6. US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. Washington, DC: US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services; 2015.

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