The Essential Whole Grain Foods You Need in Your Diet

Are you eating enough whole grains? Chances are you may not be—MyPlate, the most recent nutrition guide released by the USDA, recommends at least six 1-ounce servings of grains each day for adults. Most importantly, at least half of these servings need to be whole grains. Prized as the ultimate nutrition package, whole grains taste absolutely delicious when mixed into salads, soups, breads and more. If you think that consuming grains means a carb-overload, worry not. Whole grains, along with other carb-containing foods, like fruits, veggies and legumes, are one of the healthiest carbs you can eat.

This comprehensive guide answers your questions, and shows you just how easy it is to work more whole grains into your diet.

What are Whole Grains?

Grains are the edible seeds of plants. A grain is a “whole grain” if it contains the three key parts of a seed: the bran, germ and endosperm. Whole grains fall into oe of two categories: cereals and pseudocereals. Cereal grains come from cereal grasses such as wheat, oats, rice, corn, barley, sorghum, rye and millet. Pseudocereal grains are cooked and consumed in a similar manner, but they do not come from grasses—grains in this category include quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth.

In effect, all grains start as whole grains, but they don’t all end up on the shelf as such. Key parts of the seeds are stripped away during milling, a manufacturing process that increases the shelf life of products such as flour. Unfortunately, most of the essential nutrients are lost in this process. Consuming whole grains is the only way that you can be 100% sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck nutritionally.

Health Benefits of Whole Grains

Whole grains abound with heart-healthy soluble fiber that controls appetite while regulating blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In fact, a study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet rich in whole grains significantly decreased the risk for heart disease. Whole grains also pack a wealth of antioxidants, which have anti-inflammatory benefits.

In terms of how much of your diet should consist of whole grains, MyPlate recommends that at least half of all grains consumed daily should be whole grains. Ideally, if you’re consuming six 1-ounce servings of grains each day, three of these servings will be whole grains. MyPlate offers several common one-ounce equivalents as a resource. For example, one slice of whole wheat bread would count as one 1-ounce serving.

Are Whole Grains Gluten-Free?

Absolutely—there are plenty of fantastic gluten-free grains out there, such as brown rice, quinoa, corn and more. Grains to avoid are wheat (such as wheat berries, spelt, kamut, farro and bulgur), rye, barley and triticale. Oats are technically gluten-free, but they carry a higher possibility of cross-contamination during manufacturing. To be safe, choose gluten-free oats such as Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free Rolled Oats.

Photographer: Fred Hardy II, Food Stylist: Margaret Monroe Dickey, Prop Stylist: Shell Royster

Best Whole Grains to Eat

While all whole grains are superstars, many pack unique characteristics and health benefits not found in other grains. Here are the nine that truly shine.

1. Bulgur

A key ingredient of the Middle Eastern staple, tabbouleh, bulgur is a type of wheat can be used in so many delicious ways. It that needs only a few minutes to cook and also contains the most fiber out of any grain.

2. Rice

This extremely versatile grain is widely available and also a gluten-free option. Brown rice does have a little more fiber and protein than white rice, which can help make your meal more filling. You can serve it alongside this Garlic Butter-Roasted Salmon with Potatoes & Asparagus or in the Fajita-Inspired Chicken-Stuffed Peppers.

3. Corn

Often categorized as a vegetable, corn can also be considered a grain. Corn in its purest form is packed with antioxidants. Look for it in an assortment of colors—yellow, white, blue and even purple—and eat it straight from the cob or toast the kernels for popcorn.

4. Oats

From old-fashioned to steel-cut, oats are a staple breakfast food that are guaranteed to be whole grain even if they are quick-cooking. While all grains are high in fiber, oatmeal contains a special variety called beta-glucan that’s especially powerful in lowering cholesterol. Bake it into oat muffins or meal prep a batch of overnight oats!

5. Farro

This light-brown colored, medium-sized ancient grain is a type of wheat and is similar in appearance, texture, and taste to wheat berries. Restaurant chefs especially prize farro for its delightfully chewy texture and sweet taste.

6. Teff

Don’t let the small size fool you—this gluten-free ancient grain packs massive health perks. Teff, a type of millet, has significantly more calcium and iron than other grains. Its small size makes it ideal for baking into energy bars and breads such as injera, a spongy flatbread popular in Ethiopian cuisine.

7. Sorghum

Largely grown in the United States for livestock feed, sorghum has recently been embraced for its versatility by the gluten-free community. Cooked sorghum has a chewy texture similar to Israeli couscous, while popped sorghum is a pint-sized version of popcorn. Sorghum flour is also commonly used in gluten-free baking.

8. Quinoa

Quick-cooking, gluten-free and available in a range of colors from white to red, quinoa is a protein powerhouse. This ancient grain is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. Quinoa is also popular for its mild flavor, subtle chewiness and versatility.

9. Buckwheat

Don’t be mislead by the name—buckwheat is actually gluten-free and closely related to sorrel and rhubarb. However, its seeds are carbohydrate-rich and lend themselves to the same uses as wheat. Use buckwheat flour as a base for pancake and waffle mixes or whole buckwheat for salads or soups.

How to Buy Whole Grains

Look for whole grains at your local grocery store, either in the bulk foods section or in the rice or pasta aisle. Some stores keep products in the “health foods” or international aisle as well. Bob’s Red Mill is a widely available brand that makes just about every whole grain in existence. If you can’t find a specific product in stores, considering ordering from an online retailer.

To make sure you’re purchasing 100% whole-grain foods, check the package label. First and foremost, scan the ingredients list. Look for the word “whole” before grains (such as whole wheat) and watch out for flours that are refined or enriched. Some products may display the Whole Grain Stamp, an indicator created by the Whole Grains Council to show consumers the total amount of whole grains in a product.

Whole Grain Recipes and Ideas

Whole grains lend themselves to a plethora of savory and sweet applications from breakfast to dinner and beyond. Here are the best ways to incorporate them into your diet.

Salmon Rice Bowl

Chickpea & Quinoa Bowl with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

Green Goddess Farro Bowl

Cinnamon-Roll Overnight Oats

Baked Banana-Nut Oatmeal Cups

Cheesy Black Bean & Quinoa Skillet Casserole

Bulgur & Butter Bean Salad