Tips for Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains

Here's how to select whole-grain foods and fit the recommended servings into your eating plan.

From the WebMD Archives

Will the real whole grain please stand up? Scan the bread aisle and virtually every package touts some kind of nutritional whole-grain goodness. But few of them actually are whole grain.

We're surrounded by terms like multigrain, 100% wheat, cracked wheat, organic, pumpernickel, bran, and stone ground. These all sound like whole grains, but none of these descriptions actually indicate whole grain.

The amount of grains you need daily varies based on your age, sex, and physical activity level. You can determine how much you need by diving into My Pyramid Plan.My Pyramid Plan. "My Pyramid" sounds easy enough until you try to figure out what constitutes a whole grain.

WebMD got the skinny on whole grains along with suggestions on how to fit the recommended servings into your healthy eating plan.

Know Your Whole Grains

A whole grain contains all edible parts of the grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. The whole grain may be used intact or recombined as long as all components are present in natural proportions. To recognize whole grains, keep this list handy when you go to the grocery store and choose any of the following grains:

  • Whole-grain corn
  • Whole oats/oatmeal
  • Popcorn
  • Brown rice
  • Whole rye
  • Whole-grain barley
  • Wild rice
  • Buckwheat
  • Triticale
  • Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  • Millet
  • Quinoa
  • Sorghum

Whole grains are not necessarily brown or multigrain or only found in adult cereals. They exist throughout the food supply, including processed foods.

Don't be misled by the manufacturer's claims on the front of the package. Color, fiber, or descriptive names on the package do not necessarily imply whole-grain goodness. Some manufacturers strip the outer layer of bran off the whole kernel of wheat, use the refined wheat flour, add in molasses to color it brown, and call it 100% wheat bread. That's true, but it is not a whole grain.

The only way to really know if a whole grain is indeed "whole" is to check the ingredient list for the word "whole" preceding the grain and recognize the above grains as whole grains. Ideally, the whole grain will be the first or second ingredient in the list, indicating that the product contains more whole grain than any other ingredient.

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And avoid products that say "refined" whole wheat. Again, that's not a true whole grain and much of the health benefit has been stripped out by processing.

One simple way to find whole grains is to look for the FDA-approved health claim that reads, "In a low fat diet, whole grain foods may reduce the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancers." This is found on whole-grain products that contain at least 51% whole-grain flour (by weight) and are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.

General Mills and the Whole Grains Council have submitted a petition to the FDA to require consistency in labeling of whole grains. These groups are suggesting that a whole-grain stamp be placed on products that provide either "good" servings (8-15 grams of whole grain) or "excellent" servings (16 or more grams of whole grain). The whole-grain stamp is already showing up on packages, making it easy to select whole-grain products. Eat three "excellent" or six "good" servings daily to meet national guidelines.

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Making smart carbohydrate choices is an easy way to add a layer of health insurance to your life. Whole grains are packed with many healthy nutrients, including carbohydrates, protein, fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, vitamin E, and trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper and magnesium).

Research demonstrating the health benefits of whole grains is the backbone of health recommendations. A diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer. Whole-grain diets also improve bowel health; they help maintain regular bowel movements and promote growth of healthy bacteria in the colon.

Just because a product is made from whole grain does not suggest that it is nutritious. Sugared cereals made with whole grain are not suddenly considered health food.

"Consumers need to read the label and select cereals based on the whole-grain content and amount of sugar it contains. The less sugar, the better," says whole-grain expert Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, professor of food science and nutrition from the University of Minnesota. "Less dense products such as puffed or flaked cereal are lighter by nature and will have less fiber than denser cereals."

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Whole Grains and Fiber

Whole grains can be an excellent source of fiber. But not all whole grains are good sources of fiber. Whole wheat contains the highest amount of fiber of the whole grains. Brown rice contains the least amount of fiber.

Most people get their best source of fiber from whole grains, says Slavin.

"Most whole-grain sources yield from 1-4 grams of fiber per serving, comparable to fruits and vegetables and just the right amount when spread throughout the day," says Slavin.

Can't fiber supplements give you the same benefit? While you get plenty of fiber from these supplements you're missing out on all the other nutritional benefits of whole grains, explains Slavin.

Working more whole grains into your diet can be as simple as choosing whole-grain breads, cereals, English muffins, waffles, bagels, pasta, rice, and crackers.

Like the champions, starting your day with a bowl of whole-grain cereal energizes you and helps keep you trim. Successful "losers" from the National Weight Control Registry who have lost substantial amounts of weight -- and kept it off -- swear by the importance of eating a nutritious breakfast such as cereal each day.

Enjoy a sandwich at lunch with two slices of whole-grain bread and you are two-thirds of the way toward meeting your goal. What could be easier than eating air-popped popcorn as a snack?

Step out of the comfort zone and experiment with unusual grains.

WebMD's "Recipe Doctor" Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, likes to blend whole-wheat flour with all-purpose flour to boost the whole-grain content of her baked goods.

"Start where you are, find a whole-wheat or whole-grain bread or cereal that you like. Then work your way into new adventures. Whole grains taste and feel different to the mouth, and therefore it takes time to adjust to these new grains," advises Magee.

Other ideas from Magee include: Add barley to canned soup, and then boil to cook the barley; or try blended pastas that contain a mix of whole and refined grains. Cook up a batch of brown rice, eat it at dinner, and use the leftovers to add some pizzazz to yogurt, or mix it with vegetables for a vegetarian snack or lunch. Visit your local health food market and try your hand at some of the less familiar whole grains available.

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Whole Grains on the Rise

Slowly but surely, restaurants and food manufacturers are responding to the demand for more whole-grain products.

Visit PF Chang's and you will be delighted to see brown rice as an option at this oriental restaurant chain. Mission whole-wheat tortillas are flying off the shelf, according to the company. Kraft Foods recently unveiled its South Beach line of foods including pizzas made on whole- wheat crusts, whole-grain cereals, and refrigerated sandwich wraps on whole-wheat tortillas. As the trend continues, it will make it easier for consumers to enjoy at least three servings a day of whole-grain goodness.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES: Wyatt, H. National Weight Control Registry, 2002; vol 10: pp 78-82. Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, University of Minnesota. Elaine Magee, MPH, RD

© 2005 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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