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Go With Whole Grains

What's best for health.

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Sept. 4, 2000 -- Chew on this: If you're like most Americans, you're whole-grain challenged, consuming only a single serving of whole grains daily. And guess what? The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is on to you.

This summer, the USDA released new dietary guidelines that, for the first time, include a recommendation on whole grains: "Choose a variety of grains daily, especially whole grains." (The previous guidelines lumped grains with fruits and vegetables, and "whole" grains weren't even mentioned.) In accordance with the new guidelines, the USDA and the American Dietetic Association suggest that you eat at least three servings of whole-grain foods daily.

But just what are these things, anyway? Where do you find them? In the bottom of those funny bins at health food stores? At Amish farmer's markets? Well, yes. But there's also a cornucopia of these grains at your neighborhood supermarket. So fear not -- it's easier than you think to incorporate these healthy kernels into your diet.

Whole Grains 101

A whole grain refers to the entire edible part of a grain or seed. This includes the germ (technically the sprout of a new plant), the endosperm, which is the seed's energy storehouse, and the nutrient-rich bran, the seed's outer layer. Whole grains combine all three nifty components. Refined grains, on the other hand -- such as the bleached white flour in white bread -- are stripped of their bran and germ layers during milling, so they're lower in fiber and other nutrients.

By shortchanging ourselves on whole grains, we're missing out on all sorts of good things. These include heart-healthy soluble fiber, which helps reduce LDLs (low-density lipoproteins, the so-called "bad" cholesterol), as well as B vitamins, iron, zinc, and phytochemicals. Whole grains are also a concentrated source of the antioxidants vitamin E and selenium. Some studies have found that these substances may protect cells against DNA-damaging free radicals and thereby reduce the risk of many diseases.

"There has been abundant scientific evidence in recent years showing that people who consume more whole grains have a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, digestive disorders, and possibly some forms of cancer," says Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, professor of nutrition at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul.

Whole grains are also a low-fat source of complex carbohydrates, which are an important fuel for the body. According to the USDA, about 55% of your total caloric intake should come from carbohydrates, the majority of which should be complex. That's six to 11 servings of grains a day, three of which should be whole grains, advises the USDA. (Active men and teenage boys are advised to consume the upper limit of that range.) What's a serving? One slice of bread; 1/2 cup of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta; 1 ounce of ready-to-eat cereal; 1/2 bun, bagel, or English muffin; one small roll, biscuit, or muffin; or three to four small or two large crackers.

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