Breads, cereals and pastas are comfort foods for some and enjoyed by many – despite the fuss over carbs and gluten. Whole grains are one of the features of the American Heart Association’s dietary recommendations for heart health. And you can find a better-for-you choice if you know what to look for.
First, the basics. There are two types of grain products:
- Whole grains contain the entire grain – which is made up of bran, germ and endosperm.
- Refined grains have been milled (ground into flour or meal) in a way that removes the bran and germ. This gives them a finer texture and improves their shelf life but strips the grain of important nutrients you need, including B-vitamins, iron and dietary fiber. Examples include white and wheat flours, enriched breads, and white rice. Now, refined grains are often enriched, which means some of the B vitamins and iron are added back in after processing. While that’s good, fiber might not be added back.
So when it comes to your health, choose whole grains and other foods made up of mostly whole grains. Here’s why:
- Many whole grains are good sources of dietary fiber, which we all need. Most refined grains contain little or no fiber.
- Dietary fiber can help improve blood cholesterol levels and lower your risk of heart disease, stroke, obesity and even type 2 diabetes. Fiber for the win!
- And here’s an awesome bonus if you’re trying to lose weight: fiber can help you feel full, so you’ll be satisfied with fewer calories.
- In addition to fiber, grains provide nutrients like thiamin (Vitamin B1), riboflavin (Vitamin B2), niacin (Vitamin B3), folate (Vitamin B9), iron, magnesium and selenium. These are all important for a variety of body functions such as forming new cells, carrying oxygen in the blood, regulating the thyroid, and maintaining a healthy immune system. Pretty important stuff!
Shopping Tip: When you’re planning meals and snacks for the week, it’s important to include a variety of grains because they can differ in their nutrient content.
How to Identify Whole Grains
Do you think you can identify whole grains by color? Think again. Bread, for example, can be brown because of molasses or other ingredients, not necessarily because it contains whole grains. This is why it’s so important to get into the habit of reading nutrition labels. For most whole grain products you’ll see the words “whole” or “whole grain” first on the ingredient list.
Here are some common whole grain foods:
- Whole wheat, oats, corn, barley, farro
- Graham flour
- Oatmeal, rolled or steel cut
- Brown rice
- Wild rice
Are You Getting Enough?
The AHA recommends choosing whole grains and products that contain at least 51% whole versus refined grains.
Here are some examples of a serving of whole grains:
- 1 slice whole-grain bread (such as 100% whole-wheat bread)
- 1 cup ready-to-eat, whole-grain cereal
- 1⁄2 cup cooked whole-grain cereal (like oatmeal), brown rice or whole-wheat pasta
- 5 whole-grain crackers
- 3 cups unsalted, air-popped popcorn
- 1 6-inch whole-wheat tortilla
Also, try to get your fiber from foods rather than supplements. When you incorporate whole instead of refined grains as part of an overall healthy eating pattern.