You’ve probably heard the buzz recently about the importance of adding whole grains to your diet. In fact, it seems that items labeled “whole-grain” are popping up everywhere from pasta to toaster pastries. If you’re like many people, you might not be sure exactly what a whole grain is or why it is recommended that we consume more of them. Any food made from barley, cornmeal, oats, rice, wheat, or other cereal grasses is considered a grain product. Breads, pasta, breakfast cereals, or crackers would be a few examples. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which publishes general guidelines for consuming a healthy diet, divides grains into two subgroups—whole grains and refined grains.
The difference between whole grains and refined grains is this: Whole grains include the entire grain kernel whereas refined grains have been milled to remove certain parts of the grain. Why are whole grains in particular considered to be so much better for you? The answer is that whole grains are full of vitamins, minerals and fiber, and while refining grains improves texture and shelf life, it also removes most of the fiber and nutrients found in whole grains. Today, many of our refined grains are enriched—certain vitamins and minerals have been added back after processing. However, fiber is typically not added back in once it has been removed. In addition to being full of nutrients and fiber, consumption of whole grains has also been associated with reduced risk of some diseases, including heart disease, when consumed as part of an overall healthy diet.
According to the guidelines set forth by the USDA, a typical adult should be getting six to eight servings of grains per day, and at least half of these servings should be whole grains. One serving, for example, would be a slice of bread, 1 cup of ready-to-eat cereal, or ½ cup of cooked rice, or cooked pasta. For more information on USDA guidelines, check out www.choosemyplate.gov.
Whole-grain foods can be either the food itself, like popcorn, or an ingredient in the food, such as the flour used in bread. Besides popcorn, other whole-grain foods include brown rice, wild rice, sprouted grains, oatmeal, quinoa, and bulgur wheat. And what about foods that contain whole-grain ingredients? Look for the words “whole-grain” in the name of the food itself—as in “whole-grain bread”—or as part of the ingredient list. Whole grain products may also be labeled as “whole oats” or “whole wheat”, for example. Don’t choose products based on color or appearance. Looks can often be deceiving, and the product might not be whole grain! Also remember that product ingredients are listed by weight. That means that the closer a whole-grain ingredient appears to the beginning of the list, the more of it there is in the food you’re consuming. Try to choose products that have a whole grain listed as the number one ingredient. Fiber is also important, since most of us are not consuming enough of it. For the most benefit, choose whole-grain foods with at least some fiber included. A few small changes to add whole grains can go a long way toward better health and a healthier diet.
Michele Rager, MS, RD, LDN, CNSC, is a clinical dietitian at Mount Nittany Medical Center. More information is available at www.mountnittany.org.