Which are the healthiest grains, and why choose whole grains over refined ?

Grains are an important source of fiber, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates and minerals like iron, magnesium and selenium.

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While all whole grains provide nutrients, there are a few that stand out. Farro (pictured), oats and quinoa may be the healthiest grains because of their heavy fiber content. 

While all whole grains provide nutrients, there are a few that stand out. Farro (pictured), oats and quinoa may be the healthiest grains because of their heavy fiber content.

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While only 12.3% of U.S. adults meet the recommended fruit and vegetable intake, the grains group isn’t one that many Americans have trouble getting enough of.

Grains show up in many parts of our day — cereals and bagels in the morning, sandwiches at lunchtime, rice at dinner or popcorn while watching a movie.

But while quantity might not be an issue, quality is. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that more of your grain intake be from whole grains than refined.

Here are some healthy options in that whole grain category.

What are the healthiest grains?

Grains are an important source of fiber, B vitamins, complex carbohydrates and minerals like iron, magnesium and selenium. The carbohydrates in grains are crucial because they’re “direct and easy sources of energy for your body” says registered dietitian Chris Mohr.

While all whole grains will provide these nutrients, there are a few that stand out. Farro, oats and quinoa may be the healthiest grains because of their heavy fiber content.

“Fiber’s not the sexiest nutrient to talk about because of the benefits, but it’s critical for health,” Mohr says.

Dietary fiber helps you feel fuller, aids in digestion and helps prevent constipation. Research presented at the 2021 American Society for Nutrition conference found fewer than 1 in 10 U.S. adults meet their daily fiber recommendations. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend eating 28 grams of fiber a day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

You’re also getting protein with the three aforementioned options. A serving of oats (100 grams) contains nearly 17 grams of protein and 10.6 grams of fiber. A serving of farro of the same size contains 15.4 grams of protein and 6.6 grams of fiber. For cooked quinoa, it’s about 3 grams of fiber and 4.4 grams of protein.

For comparison’s sake, the same portion of white rice contains about 2.7 grams of protein and 0.4 grams of fiber.

While these three are great options, Mohr says you ideally want to eat a variety of grains to get different nutrients.

The USDA recommends that at least half of your daily grain intake be whole grains, which contain more vitamins and nutrients than refined grains. Mohr says we shouldn’t be scared of refined grains but should make sure they’re enriched.

The refinement process gives grains a finer texture and longer shelf life — we see this in cereal, white flour, white bread and white rice, for example.

Today, many refined grains are enriched, which means they add back nutrients like B vitamins and iron but not fiber.

Enriched, refined grains do add folic acid, though, which Mohr says even whole grains don’t include as much of in their natural form. The benefits of folate include improved digestive system functioning and preventing common cancers, cardiovascular disease, infertility, stroke, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Check the packaging or nutrition labels to tell whether a refined grain is enriched. Organic products might not be fortified.

Whole grain oats are a great option for a healthy breakfast.

Whole grain oats are a great option for a healthy breakfast.

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What are whole grains?

To understand whole grains, first it helps to understand grain kernel anatomy. The kernel is made of three parts:

Bran: The hard outer coating of the grain that contains vitamins, minerals and fiber

Germ: The “embryo” of the germ — it’s able to sprout into a new plant and contains B vitamins, minerals, protein and fat

Endosperm: The largest part of the grain kernel that supplies energy to the plant and contains carbohydrates, proteins and some vitamins and minerals

Whole grains are just as they sound — the entire grain kernel remains intact. When you refine grains, it strips the grain of the bran and germ and uses just the inside endosperm. This removes most of the grain’s vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein.

How to eat more healthy grains

It’s important to know how to look for whole grains when you’re grocery shopping. You can’t use a darker color as a judge because breads and other grain products are sometimes dyed with molasses. You have to look at the ingredient list.

“You want the words ‘whole grain’ to be at the beginning of the ingredient list,” Mohr says.

Try whole grain bread instead of whole wheat or white bread, having brown rice or wild rice once in a while if you normally eat white rice or looking for whole grain bagel options, Mohr says.

Whole grain cereals can be another good addition to your mornings. Regularly consuming ready-to-eat cereals, especially whole grain ones, is associated with significant increases in overall dietary fiber intake.

Read more at usatoday.com.

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