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What are the healthiest whole grains? The No. 1 pick, according to a dietitian

The top whole grain is accessible, affordable and versatile, and you probably already have it in your pantry.

You’ve probably heard that it’s healthier to choose whole wheat instead of white bread, but have you ever wondered what makes whole grains so much better for you? Believe it or not, the world “whole” makes a big difference when scanning the ingredients list. It signifies that the full grain is intact and has all of its beneficial nutrients. As a matter of fact, whole grains contribute a significant portion of fiber to the diet, a nutrient that only a measly 5% of Americans get enough of on a daily basis. Not only does fiber help with digestion, but it also plays a role in warding off chronic disease. 

That’s why the USDA recommends Americans eat at least three servings of whole grains per day. But there are ways to do that outside of eating whole wheat bread. Here’s a list of all the whole grains, as well as their health benefits. 

What are whole grains?

A whole grain contains all three parts of the wheat plant — the bran, germ and endosperm — which house important nutrients, like antioxidants, protein, fiber and B vitamins. 

On the other hand, refined grains, like white rice or white bread, are missing one or more parts of the grain. In other words, refined grains are not “whole”. 

For example, white flour and white rice do not have the bran or germ. According to the Whole Grains Council, refining a grain removes about a quarter of the protein and more than half of the other nutrients. That’s why the USDA recommends making half your recommended six servings of grains whole grains. 

Whole grain foods list

There are a variety of whole grains, including ones you probably know, like whole wheat bread, and others that may surprise you, like corn. Here’s a complete list of the whole grains you’ll find in stores: 

  • Amaranth 
  • Barley 
  • Brown rice
  • Buckwheat 
  • Bulgur 
  • Corn, including popcorn
  • Einkorn 
  • Farro 
  • Freekeh 
  • Kamut 
  • Kañiwa 
  • Millet 
  • Oats 
  • Quinoa
  • Rye 
  • Sorghum 
  • Spelt 
  • Teff 
  • Triticale 
  • Wheat
  • Wild Rice

What is the healthiest whole grain?

It’s nearly impossible to name one whole grain the healthiest. But if I had to choose one, I’d deem oats the healthiest whole grain. Like many other whole grains, oats are rich in fiber and protein, but they stand out for their affordability, versatility and approachability. Oats are easy to find in the supermarket, effortless to cook and inexpensive. They come in various forms, like instant, steel cut or “old-fashioned,” all of which are nutritionally equal. 

What’s more, there’s a ton of research on the benefits of oats. Specifically, oats contain a special fiber called beta-glucan, which has been linked to lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. Oats have also been shown to benefit digestion and gut health. This high-fiber plant-based food promotes the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut, which plays a role in gastrointestinal health, immune system function and cognition.

Besides oats, these are a few other whole grains that have unique properties. 

Amaranth has more protein than many other grains, with 9 grams per cup cooked. Amaranth has a creamy consistency, like porridge, and you can also pop dry amaranth as a crunchy alternative to popcorn. 

Sorghum is an underutilized gluten-free grain with notable amounts of protein and fiber. It’s rich in antioxidants, and research suggests eating reduces some important chronic diseases biomarkers. Not to mention that sorghum is one of the most sustainable crops. Sorghum has a nutty flavor and a similar texture to pearled couscous. 

Teff, one of the smallest grains in the world, has protein, calcium, B vitamins, zinc, iron and fiber. It’s a similar consistency to porridge, so it can be used in risotto or polenta type dishes. 

Are whole grains good for weight loss?

Whole grains have two nutrients that aid in weight loss–protein and fiber. Protein not only contributes to lean muscle mass, but it controls appetite and regulates hunger in between meals. Foods with fiber stay in the stomach longer, increasing feeling of fullness between meals. These two nutrients have been linked to weight loss and weight maintenance. 

Although many assume that carb-rich whole grains contribute to weight gain, research suggests otherwise. A 2023 study in BMJ observed the link between carbohydrate intake and weight changes. They found that the type of carbohydrate consumed matters most for weight gain. Specifically, the authors conclude that replacing refined grains with whole grains is associated with less weight gain over a 24-year span.

Whole grain recipes

Whole grains are good for breakfasts, snacks, lunch or dinner. You may even find them in desserts. Here are some of our favorite whole grain recipes.

Nut-Free Granola Bars