Go With Whole Grains

What's best for health.

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
From the WebMD Archives

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.

Besides providing fuel, whole grains contain substantial amounts of fiber. One cup of oatmeal, for example, contains 8 grams of fiber, which is about 30% of the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) recommendation of 20 to 35 grams per day. The roughage helps you maintain proper bowel function. What's more, it may help you to feel full on fewer calories.

Consider that according to a USDA study published in The Journal of Nutrition in April 1997, participants who consumed 18 to 36 grams of fiber a day absorbed 130 fewer daily calories. That adds up to a potential 13-pound weight loss over a year's time. To boost their fiber intake, subjects made simple switches, such as having whole-wheat instead of white bread, says David J. Baer, PhD, a research physiologist with the USDA and the study's lead researcher.

Getting the Grains

To get more whole grains into your diet, choose unprocessed foods that have been tampered with as little as possible, says Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, who frequently lectures on whole grains.

Start by eating cereals like oatmeal for breakfast or as a snack, Slavin says. Opt for whole-grain bread instead of white whenever possible -- from your morning toast to your noontime deli sandwich to your late-evening snack.

Choose soups containing whole grains, such as barley or brown rice, instead of chicken noodle. Also, try whole-wheat instead of regular white-flour pasta and fortify more meals with whole-grain side dishes, such as brown rice or corn. If you're feeling especially adventurous, seek out recipes that call for exotic items such as quinoa, a tiny, bead-shaped grain native to South America that takes half the cooking time of rice. Bulgur (wheat kernels), a Middle Eastern staple, is another nutritious whole grain -- and it's delicious in pilaf and salads. Both quinoa and bulgur are available at many health food stores. Finally, when you feel like a snack, pick low-fat whole-wheat crackers or air-popped popcorn.

Watch Out for Impostors

Spotting whole-grain bread and cereal products at the supermarket can be tricky. With a tinge of molasses or caramel food coloring, some breads, for example, can fool you. They suggest whole grains when they're actually made from refined white flour.

In general, to choose a whole-grain bread or cereal product, don't go by color. Instead, look for labeling clues on the Nutrition Facts panel. Ingredients such as brown rice, bulgur, graham flour, whole-grain corn, oatmeal, popcorn, pearl barley, whole oats, whole rye, or whole wheat should be listed as the first component. (Be careful: Without the operative word "whole," as in "whole wheat," you may be buying items made from processed flours.) And don't be fooled by phrases such as "multigrain," "7-grain," or "made with whole grain." They're often used on nutrient- and fiber-deficient items to make them sound healthy, says Diane Quagliani, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago.

Of course, you can also simply check the fiber content listed on the Nutrition Facts panel. For bread and cereals, anything with 2 or more grams of fiber per serving qualifies as a whole-grain product, says Slavin. According to USDA regulations, the food label can also state that a product is "a good source" of fiber if it contributes 10% of the Daily Value of fiber (2.5 grams) per serving. Furthermore, the package can claim "high in," "rich in," or "excellent source of" fiber if the product provides 20% of the Daily Value (5 grams) per serving.

Don't want to bother with the Nutrition Facts panel? Look no farther than the front of the package. Last year, the FDA approved a health claim for bread and cereal items that contain 51% or more whole-grain ingredients by weight: "Diets rich in whole grain foods and other plant foods low in total fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol may reduce the risk of heart disease and certain cancers." Qualifying products are also allowed to don a seal that says: "100% Whole Grain."

So take heart: Once you learn to separate the whole grain powerhouses from the weaklings, you'll make your body -- not to mention the USDA -- very happy.