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Whole-grain food: Good (for you) in many ways

Whole-grain foods got an enthusiastic thumbs-up in the latest Recommended Daily Allowances report. Phil Lempert has a 101.

Q: What food group is so nutritious it can help you reduce your risk for major diseases, improve regularity and help reduce weight (and also is chewy, delicious and filling)?

A: Whole grains!

OK, OK. Before you start thinking about rabbit food, let’s do a quick 101 on this important food group, which has gotten a lot of attention lately following an enthusiastic endorsement of whole grains in the latest version of the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDAs). 

What exactly are whole grains? Whole grains include whole or cracked wheat, corn, cornmeal, popcorn, brown and colored rice, oatmeal and whole oats, barley, quinoa, sorghum, spelt and whole rye. Other examples are grains and flours made from the following: amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, emmer, farro, grano (lightly pearled wheat), millet, triticale, wheat berries and wild rice (which looks like a rice but is actually a different kind of grain, more akin to a grass). Why are whole grains so important?
Whole grains or foods made from them contain all the essential parts and naturally occurring nutrients of the entire grain seed. The outer skin of the seed is the B vitamin-, antioxidant- and fiber-rich bran; the germ (or embryo) holds the protein, minerals and healthy fats; and the endosperm (the main part of the grain between the bran and the germ) has the proteins, carbohydrates and smaller quantities of vitamins and minerals. The bran and germ contain 25 percent of the protein in whole grains and many nutrients. When highly processed, these valuable nutrients and proteins are lost (not to mention healthful fiber).

How do whole grains fight disease? One of the most important things in whole grains is fiber, a key to good intestinal health and lower cholesterol levels. If you don’t eat foods with enough fiber, toxins increase and stay in the body, which can lead to chronic constipation, lethargy and the potential for disease. The other healthful ingredients in whole grains play an important part in overall health: Antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and protein in whole grains keep our bodies healthy, operating efficiently and increase our strength.

Research has shown that just three daily servings (or 48 grams) of whole grains can reduce the risk of heart disease by 25 percent to 36 percent, strokes by 37 percent, Type II diabetes by 21 percent to 27 percent, digestive system cancers by 21 percent to 43 percent and hormone-related cancers by 10 percent to 40 percent. Although whole grains are best, partially processed ones also offer healthful benefits. If the grain has been cracked, crushed, rolled, extruded, lightly pearled and/or cooked but retains both the bran and germ, it will deliver approximately the same rich balance of nutrients found in the original grain seed.

How can you add fiber-rich whole grains to your diet?It’s easy to meet that Recommended Daily Allowance. Use a whole-grain bread, such as rye, whole-wheat or multigrain for your midday sandwich. For breakfast, eat oatmeal or buckwheat cereal, and whole-meal waffles or pancakes. Add whole grains with dinner as a side or main dish and you’ve easily and simply met your RDA goals. Don’t think it takes huge servings, either; in fact, it takes as little as a half cup of cooked grains, 1 cup of popcorn, 2/5 cup cooked oatmeal, or one slice of whole-grain bread to make a single serving.

Here are some other ideas:

  1. Eat corn tortillas, whole-grain pita bread or whole-grain bagels. Even whole-grain English muffins will amp the gram intake from 4 to 10 grams per serving.
  2. Add cooked grains to soups, salads and casseroles. A half cup of bulgur, wild rice, brown rice or quinoa will give you 6 to 8 grams of fiber.
  3. Experiment! Instead of sliced white bread, try multigrain, oat or rye breads and look in the refrigerated section for more unusual grains, such as spelt, emmer and faro. These breads are very filling, taste great and give you whopping amounts of grains (up to 16 grams per slice!).
  4. Snack on the good stuff: multigrain chips and crackers or air-popped popcorn (instead of salt-and-fat-drenched microwave ones).
  5. And for home bakers, substitute half of the white flour with whole-wheat flour in your regular recipes for cookies, muffins, and cakes.

Making shopping for grains easierOnly 10 percent of the supermarket inventory is whole grains or foods made with whole grains. That means it’s important to read labels of packaged food products. One key to making good choices is to remember that whole-grain means ALL the nutrients are still in the food; white flour and products made from white flour means ALL or most of the nutrients are processed out.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent