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Whole Grains for a Healthy Diet

Updated on November 1, 2019
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Nicolette Goff is a watercolourist, writer, and dedicated gardener. She is always on the lookout for new and unique plants.

Whole Grain Breads

Bake it with wheat, oats and barley.
Bake it with wheat, oats and barley.

Why whole grains should be part of your healthy diet

Low-carb diets have caused many people to avoid whole grains.

All carbs are definitely not created equal. Low carbohydrate diets may be effective for weight loss, but research has shown that people who include unrefined whole grains in their diet regularly are healthier, with less fat that those who avoid them.

Evidence exists that those who eat whole grains regularly can reduce their risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. Whole grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates, various vitamins and minerals and plant proteins.

They are a source of fiber and other nutrients such as selenium, potassium and magnesium, and are naturally low in fat. A high fiber diet tends to make a meal feel more filling for a longer time, so is beneficial in weight loss.

"You’re getting fibre, a healthy plant-based protein, vitamins, minerals, and a variety of phytochemicals that will improve your health," says Lilian Cheung, DSc, RD, a lecturer in nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Fibre Can Fight Disease

The American Cancer Society recommends that people eat more whole unrefined grains to lower their cancer risk. Unrefined fiber can decrease the toxicity of bile acids.

Soluble fibre, especially that in oats and barley, may reduce LDL cholesterol levels as well as slowing digestion so that there are no steep rises in blood sugar levels after meals.

The phytochemicals found in whole grains - lignans, rutin, and tocotrienols - are antioxidants that may reduce heart disease and cancer.

What is the difference between whole grains and refined grains?

All grains start out as whole.

Whole grains are subjected to very little processing - only the outer hull is removed.

Refined grains are simply grains that have had the bran and germ layers removed during the refining process.

As a result, many of the natural vitamins and minerals are lost. The refining process may add back some of these, but the fiber is lost.

When purchasing grains, you should be familiar with certain terms so you are aware of what you are buying. You know what whole grains are, but processed grains are subjected to different methods of refining. All of these methods decrease cooking time.

Wheat Grains

Whole Wheat
Whole Wheat

How are Grains Refined?

Pearled grains (such as pearl barley) have had the bran layers removed. They are also referred to as polished grains. White rice is another pearled or polished grain.

Grits are a form of grain in which the kernels have been cut into smaller pieces. They may be steel-cut or cracked. Corn grits and cracked wheat are familiar examples.

Flakes are created when grain is steamed and flattened with a roller. The rolled oats we buy for breakfast is a flaked grain.

Meal refers to a ground grain, with a coarse texture, either stone ground or ground with steel rollers. Think here of cornmeal.

Bran is the nutrient packed but indigestible layer covering the inner kernel of grain. It is ground into a meal to be used as a supplement or food additive. Wheat bran and oat bran are both commonly available.

The germ is the oily embryo of a grain kernel, loaded with vitamins and minerals. Its fat content decreases the shelf life of any product containing the germ.

Adding Whole Grains to Your Diet

You can add whole grains to your diet in many ways:

  • Include high fiber breakfast cereals such as oatmeal, quinoa or shredded wheat
  • Buy or bake your own whole grain and multi grain breads
  • Use a variety of whole grains like kasha, millet, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa or bulgur as a side dish.
  • Use rolled oats, cornmeal, or wheat germ instead of bread crumbs.
  • Add bulgur to salads and pilafs.
  • Replace white rice with brown rice, quinoa or wild rice.
  • Mix flaxseed meal or powder into breads, muffins and pancakes, or sprinkle it on salads, casseroles or breakfast cereals.
  • Look for organic grains and avoid any that may be GMO, since they are not proven to be safe for consumption.

How to Add Whole Grains to Your Diet

Storing Whole Grains

Whole grains can require some care in how you store them. Because a whole grain contains the germ, which contains oil, they can become rancid if they are not stored properly.

If you buy your whole grains in bulk, you can store them in half-gallon or gallon jars. They can be vacuum packed with a Foodsaver appliance, and then stored in a cool, dry and dark place.

High temperatures and light both will reduce the shelf life and degrade their nutritional value. A better method is to store them in airtight containers in your fridge or freezer.

How to Cook Quinoa

Grains - Common and Not So Common

Wheat - Probably the most commonly used grain in North America. It's ideal for making bread due to its high gluten content. However, people who are gluten intolerant or have irritable bowel syndrome should avoid it. Whole wheat flour can be substituted for white flour in many recipes.

Corn - Common in and native to the US, Central and South America, corn is used in recipes such as cornbread, muffins, brown bread, or as breading. Much of our corn is from genetically modified seed - you may want to reduce your use of corn because of this.

Rice - Rice is often used as an alternative to wheat for those who are allergic to gluten. Many varieties are marketed, either as brown(whole grain) or white (refined or polished) rice. Rice flour is readily available.

Oats - Often used as hot breakfast cereal and in recipes like oatmeal cookies, oatmeal bread, and granola, oats are a versatile grain. Oats can be purchased as rolled oats or steel-cut oats. Quick cooking brands are less nutritious. Try soaking oats overnight before cooking as a breakfast cereal.

Barley - Barley is commonly used in soups. Barley flour can be mixed with other flours and used in bread-making. Buy hulled barley, rather than pearled, as it is more nutritious.

Rye - Rye has a low gluten content; and is often mixed with wheat to make bread. It is mainly found as a flour, and often used in crackers.

Buckwheat - Not a "true" grain, but buckwheat is commonly considered so. Buckwheat flour makes great tasting pancakes; buckwheat groats can be served hot as a breakfast cereal or used in baking.

Millet - Commonly used in soups, stews, and casserole, millet can be a substitute for rice.

Spelt - Although it contains some gluten, it's often tolerated better than wheat by those sensitive to gluten. Used mainly in breads, but also in some prepared breakfast cereals.

Amaranth - A seed rather than a grain, it has high protein content and "good" amino acid balance. Amaranth can be boiled for porridge or ground into flour and used in baking.

Sorghum - a type of grass originally from Africa. The seed can be boiled, used to make flatbread, or mixed with wheat flour in breads.

Quinoa (pronounced "keen-wa") - A seed from the Andes region, quinoa is highest in protein of all grains, and contains minerals such as iron and magnesium. It is used as breakfast food, to replace cracked wheat in pilafs, or used in casseroles. It can be ground into flour, and used with wheat, makes a more nutritious bread. It cooks very quickly compared to other grains.

Hemp - The hemp seed (marketed as 'hemp hearts') may be one of nature's most perfect foods. With a pleasant nut-like flavor and creamy texture, hulled hemp seed is a nutritious addition to cereals, salads, smoothies and baked goods. It is high in Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids and an excellent source of protein- containing all of the essential amino acids.

Flax - High in essential fatty acids, flax seed can be added to cereals, breads and salads It is assimilated best when ground, but should be ground just before use for maximum freshness. The high oil content can become rancid if not refrigerated.

Quinoa - Ancient Grain from the Andes
Quinoa - Ancient Grain from the Andes
Rice - Staple of the East
Rice - Staple of the East

© 2008 Nicolette Goff


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