In our quest to eat fewer carbohydrates, we’re missing out on the health benefits of whole grains.

September is Whole Grains Month. Today’s post, from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Health-e-Weight program, will help you learn about this delicious and healthy food. In our quest to eat fewer carbohydrates, we’re missing out on the health benefits of whole grains. But what exactly are whole grains? What benefits can we gain from eating them, and how can we work them into our daily meals?

What Are Whole Grains?

Whole grains contain all three edible parts of a grain: the inner germ, the middle endosperm, and the outer bran covering. This makes them rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and a multitude of disease-fighting substances. By contrast, refined grains have most of their germ and bran removed during processing, resulting in a depletion of many of these nutritious compounds.

Examples of Whole Grains:

  • Whole wheat berries, whole wheat bulgur, whole wheat couscous, and other strains of wheat, such as kamut and spelt
  • Brown rice (including quick-cooking brown rice)
  • Corn, whole cornmeal, popcorn
  • Oat groats, steel-cut oats, rolled oats (including quick-cooking and instant oatmeal)
  • Whole rye
  • Hulled barley (pot, scotch, and pearled barley often have much of their bran removed)
  • Triticale (pronounced try-ti-KAY-lee)
  • Millet
  • Teff (reported to be the world’s smallest grain and to have a sweet, malty flavor)

Buckwheat, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah), wild rice, and amaranth are not botanically true grains, but are typically associated with the grain family due to their similar composition. They also are considered whole grains and can be found at health food stores, along with other less common grains.

What Whole Grains Can Do for You

The regular consumption of whole-grain foods can be an important step to:

  • Protect you from heart disease and lower your cholesterol level
  • Ward off certain cancers
  • Reduce your risk of diabetes
  • Promote digestive health
  • Keep weight off

This last point may seem shocking – after all, aren’t carbohydrates fattening? Don’t they raise blood sugar and insulin levels and make our bodies store fat? Well, that depends on the type of carbohydrate. Both whole grains and refined grains are high in carbohydrates, but their effects on the blood sugar differ. Refined grains quickly raise the blood sugar while the fiber in whole grains help slow down this rise. In addition, whole-grain fiber helps us feel full so that we may be less likely to reach for that second helping.

From Field to Table

Grains are widely used in the making of bread products, muffins, breakfast cereals, crackers, and pastas. How can you tell if these products contain whole grains? Skip right over the fancy names on the packages and read the ingredient list.

  • Choose foods that list whole or whole grain before the grain’s name as the first ingredient. For example: durum whole-wheat flour, whole rye, or whole-grain cornmeal. (An exception is graham flour, which is a whole-wheat flour.)
  • Don’t rely on color to identify a whole grain. Ingredients such as molasses or caramel coloring may have been added.
  • The following terms do not necessarily indicate a whole grain: wheat flour, stone-ground, 100 percent wheat, seven grain, multigrain, pumpernickel, enriched, fortified, organic, or bran. Remember, look for the word “whole.”
  • Start your day with a whole-grain hot or cold cereal.
  • Try whole-wheat varieties of pancakes and waffles topped with fruit.
  • Use whole-wheat pitas, whole-grain breads, or whole-grain tortillas when making sandwiches. Switch
    to whole-grain pastas and brown rice. As an introduction, mix some whole grain into your
    regular pasta or rice.
  • Try whole-wheat couscous or quick-cooking brown rice; they cook in 5 to 10 minutes!
  • Substitute half whole-wheat flour in recipes calling for flour.
  • Top whole-grain crackers with hummus, low-fat cheese, or nut butters.
  • Wrap a whole-wheat tortilla around peanut butter and banana or eggs and salsa.
  • Munch on air-popped popcorn with a spray of olive or canola oil and a sprinkling of your favorite spices.
  • Snack on a mix of different types of whole-grain cold cereals with dried fruit and nuts or baked tortilla
    chips with guacamole, bean dip, or salsa.
  • Make small changes over time by trying a new whole grain each month.

Working Whole Grains into Your Diet

If you are currently eating few whole grains, add them into your diet gradually. This will give your body a chance to adjust to the additional fiber. Also, remember to include at least 64 ounces of fluid a day. Finally, keep in mind that each type of whole grain provides a unique set of nutrients.

So be adventurous regarding variety, and remember: Don’t put it in your bowl if it doesn’t say “whole”!

For more information about preparing whole grains visit the BWH Health-e-weight for Women.

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