March 7, 2023

The Whole Truth About Whole Grains

A diet rich in whole grains improves gut health, protects your heart and may reduce cancer risk

Whole grain products

Eating right can help improve your cardiovascular and overall health, but food labels and names can be confusing.

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That’s especially true when it comes to grains. Most of us have grown up hearing that it’s important to eat whole grains. Still, a walk down the bread aisle in your grocery store can start to feel a bit like a vocabulary test: Your grains can be whole, yes, but they can also be refined, enriched, fortified, coarse, fine … and don’t get us started on the mystery that is “multigrain”!

How can you make sure the grains you’re eating are the right ones?

We talked with dietitian Erin Rossi, RD, LD, to learn what whole grains are, exactly, why they’re so good for you and how to find them.

What are whole grains?

In their original, whole state (unprocessed), 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, protein and healthy unsaturated fats.

But processed (or refined) grains have their healthy outer layers stripped off. This milling process mechanically removes the bran — the fiber-rich outer layer which contains B vitamins and minerals. Milling also removes the germ layer, which contains essential fatty acids and vitamin E.

That’s why you want to keep your grains whole as often as you can, Rossi states. Although some foods made from processed grains 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.

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Benefits of whole grains

A diet that’s rich in whole grains can help you:

  • Avoid weight gain. The outer coatings of grains contain bran or fiber, which keeps you feeling full longer. The result? Studies suggest people who eat a lot of whole grains tend to have lower BMIs and are less likely to carry weight in their midsection.
  • Improve your gut health. Fiber helps your digestive system function well by bulking up your stool and keeping you “regular,” as the saying goes. But that’s not all! Whole grains also seem to improve your gut microbiota.
  • Improve (or maintain) your cholesterol. We’ve long known that dietary fiber can reduce your total cholesterol and your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels. Multiple studies — including this one, published in 2015 — suggest that oats are the best whole grain for lowering cholesterol.
  • Reduce your blood pressure. A study published in 2022 found that consuming more whole grains may reduce your risk of developing hypertension over time.
  • Prevent type 2 diabetes. Research has shown that eating a diet rich in whole grains helps prevent diabetes. That’s because, in addition to reducing one’s risk of having overweight or obesity (a risk factor for diabetes), people who eat a lot of whole grains generally have lower blood sugar and better insulin sensitivity.
  • Lower your risk for certain kinds of cancer. A 2020 systematic review of 17 different studies found that people eating whole grains have lower rates of colorectal, colon, gastric, pancreatic and esophageal cancers.
  • Prevent heart disease and stroke. Studies show that eating a diet rich in whole grains has a significant positive impact on your heart health. Whole grains are also protective against stroke. That’s why they feature so prominently in both the DASH diet and the Mediterranean diet, two eating plans that doctors routinely recommend for people with cardiovascular health concerns.

Types of whole grains

So, we know what whole grains are and why they’re good for us, but what exactly should we be eating if we’re looking to enrich our diets?

Many pantry staples fit the bill, including:

  • Oatmeal of all kinds (from unprocessed oat groats to the instant stuff).
  • Certain breakfast cereals, granolas and mueslis.
  • Any rice that isn’t white — especially forbidden rice.
  • Whole-wheat bread, pasta, crackers and flour.
  • Popcorn (and corn in general).

If you aren’t already cooking with them, you can also consider adding the following whole grains into your diet:

“Buying prepared foods can be tricky, especially when you look for foods made from whole grains,” Rossi notes. 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.

Are whole grains a healthier option?

In the past few years, a growing chorus of influencers, diet peddlers and self-appointed “experts” have claimed whole grains aren’t any better than refined grains. Not only do they suggest whole grains aren’t good for you, but some also go so far as to argue they’re actively bad for you. They claim whole grains are chock full of “anti-nutrients” and are responsible for the ever-increasing number of people living with chronic health conditions.

But the science doesn’t back those ideas up. And neither does Rossi.

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While there’s a limit to the amount of carbohydrates you should consume in a day — and some are better than others — whole grains are an important source of macronutrients and are foundational to a balanced diet.

Rossi’s advice? “Opt for whole grains and avoid refined grains.” If you do that, you’re maximizing the benefits of these complex carbohydrates and giving your body the fuel it needs, without spiking your blood sugar.

Grains of truth

Whether you’re an oatmeal aficionado, a freekah fanatic or a rye guy, keep eating the whole grains you enjoy: They’re good for you! And don’t be afraid to experiment with grains you’ve never tried before.

“There are so many delicious recipes that use whole grains instead of processed grains,” Rossi encourages. “And you can feel good about every recipe you make when you use them.”

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