Chances are you eat lots of grains already. But are they the healthiest kind? If you're like most people, you're not getting enough whole grains in your diet. Aim to choose whole grains for at least half of all the grains you eat. Read on to learn about the different types and why you should skip refined and enriched grains.
Types of grains
Also called cereals, grains and whole grains are the seeds of grasses cultivated for food. They come in many shapes and sizes, from large kernels of popcorn to small quinoa seeds.
- Whole grains. These unrefined grains haven't had their bran and germ removed by milling; therefore, all of the nutrients remain intact. Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium and magnesium. Whole grains are either single foods, such as brown rice and popcorn, or ingredients in products, such as buckwheat in pancakes or whole wheat in bread.
- Refined grains. In contrast to whole grains, refined grains are milled, a process that strips out both the bran and germ to give them a finer texture and longer shelf life. The refining process also removes many nutrients, including fiber. Refined grains include white flour, white rice, white bread and degermed cornflower. Many breads, cereals, crackers, desserts and pastries are made with refined grains, too. These processed foods will not keep your blood sugar levels steady, which is why you will be hungry again soon after consumption.
- Enriched grains. Enriched means that some or many of the nutrients that are lost during processing are added back in later.
Most refined grains are enriched, and many enriched grains are also fortified — meaning nutrients that don’t occur naturally in the food are added — with other vitamins and minerals, such as folic acid and iron. Enriched grains lack fiber and are not an optimal choice because while they have traces of nutrition, many important vitamins and nutrients are lost during processing.
Choosing whole grains
Eat whole grains rather than refined grains as often as possible. Examples of whole grains include:
- Brown rice
- Bulgur (cracked wheat)
- Whole-wheat bread, pasta or crackers
- Wild rice
It's not always easy to tell which grains are in a particular product, especially bread. For instance, a brown bread isn't necessarily whole wheat — the color may come from added coloring. If you're not sure something has whole grains, check the product label or the Nutrition Facts panel. Look for the word "whole" on the package, and make sure whole grains appear among the first items in the ingredient list.
How to enjoy more whole grains in your diet
Try these tips to add more whole grains to your meals and snacks:
- Enjoy breakfasts that include whole-grain cereals, such as bran flakes, shredded wheat or oatmeal.
- Substitute whole-wheat toast or whole-grain bagels for plain. Substitute low-fat bran muffins for pastries.
- Make sandwiches using whole-grain breads or rolls. Swap out white-flour tortillas with whole-wheat versions.
- Replace white rice with kasha, brown rice, wild rice or bulgur.
- Feature wild rice or barley in soups, stews, casseroles and salads.
- Add whole grains, such as cooked brown rice or whole-grain bread crumbs, to ground meat or poultry for extra body.
- Use rolled oats or crushed bran cereal in recipes instead of dry bread crumbs.
Eating a variety of whole grains not only ensures that you get more health-promoting nutrients but also helps make your meals and snacks more interesting.