Eating right can help improve your cardiovascular and overall health, but food labels and names can be confusing.
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You’re not alone if you’ve ever wondered if whole grains are good for you. You may also wonder “What whole grains should I eat?” or “What type of breads or cereals are best to stay healthy?”
“There’s a short answer to all of those questions,” dietitian Erin Rossi MFN, RD, LD, says. “Opt for whole grains and avoid refined grains.”
What the “whole” in whole grains means and why you need it
In their original, whole (unprocessed) state grains like wheat, oats, kasha and rice have outer layers or coats. Whole grains are first harvested as a whole grain kernel consisting of layers of bran, germ and endosperm.
These layers contain healthy vitamins, minerals and fiber as well as carbohydrates, some protein and healthy unsaturated fats.
Processed or refined grains have the healthy outer layers stripped off. Food manufacturers will remove the outer layers of the grains in order to create a commercially successful product for consumers. This milling process mechanically removes the bran — the fiber-rich outer layer which contains B vitamins and minerals. Milling also removes the germ layer that contains essential fatty acids and vitamin E.
That’s why you want to keep your grains whole as often as you can. Although some foods made from processed grains often have nutrients added back in to make them healthier — even enhanced or “enriched” foods made from refined grains lack the healthy properties that naturally occur in the whole, unprocessed kind.
The benefits of whole grains
Whole grain benefits go beyond nutrition. Foods made from whole grains can help you avoid weight gain.
The outer coatings contain bran or fiber, which keeps you feeling full longer. And that same fiber helps your digestive system function well, helping you to be more comfortable.
Research has shown that eating a diet rich in whole grains helps prevent diabetes, and that it has heart-protective benefits as well. Refined grains in the diet don’t have these benefits, so whole grains are a smart choice.
Shopping tips to wrap whole grains into your diet
“Buying prepared foods can be tricky, especially when you look for foods made from whole grains,” Rossi says. These tips can help:
- Check the label. The first ingredient listed should say “100% whole grain.”
- Avoid any food that mentions the phrase “enriched” or “refined.” That’s a giveaway that the item contains refined grains.
- Look for the “Whole Grain” stamp from the nonprofit Whole Grains Council. This stamp tells you that the product contains at least a half serving of whole grains.
Here’s a quick cheat sheet for some popular whole-grain items that you can find at most markets.
- Oatmeal (steel cut, instant or old fashioned).
- 100% whole-wheat breads, English muffins or crackers.
- 100% whole-wheat tortillas or flatbreads.
- 100% whole-grain (wheat, corn, oat) cereals.
Of course, you can cook or bake your own items using some of the healthy products listed below. (Click to link to some healthy recipes made with these ingredients.)
“There are so many other delicious recipes that use whole grains instead of processed grains,” Rossi says. “And you can feel good about every recipe you make when you use them.”