Tips for Reaping the Benefits of Whole Grains
Here's how to select whole-grain foods and fit the recommended servings into your eating plan.
By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD
Will the real whole grain please stand up? Scan the bread aisle and virtually every package touts some kind of nutritional whole-grain goodness. But few of them actually are whole grain.
We're surrounded by terms like multigrain, 100% wheat, cracked wheat, organic, pumpernickel, bran, and stone ground. These all sound like whole grains, but none of these descriptions actually indicate whole grain.
The amount of grains you need daily varies based on your age, sex, and physical activity level. You can determine how much you need by diving into "My Pyramid Plan" on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's web site. "My Pyramid" sounds easy enough until you try to figure out what constitutes a whole grain.
WebMD got the skinny on whole grains along with suggestions on how to fit the recommended servings into your healthy eating plan.
Know Your Whole Grains
A whole grain contains all edible parts of the grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm. The whole grain may be used intact or recombined as long as all components are present in natural proportions. To recognize whole grains, keep this list handy when you go to the grocery store and choose any of the following grains:
Whole grains are not necessarily brown or multigrain or only found in adult cereals. They exist throughout the food supply, including processed foods.
Don't be misled by the manufacturer's claims on the front of the package. Color, fiber, or descriptive names on the package do not necessarily imply whole-grain goodness. Some manufacturers strip the outer layer of bran off the whole kernel of wheat, use the refined wheat flour, add in molasses to color it brown, and call it 100% wheat bread. That's true, but it is not a whole grain.
The only way to really know if a whole grain is indeed "whole" is to check the ingredient list for the word "whole" preceding the grain and recognize the above grains as whole grains. Ideally, the whole grain will be the first or second ingredient in the list, indicating that the product contains more whole grain than any other ingredient.
And avoid products that say "refined" whole wheat. Again, that's not a true whole grain and much of the health benefit has been stripped out by processing.
One simple way to find whole grains is to look for the FDA-approved health claim that reads, "In a low fat diet, whole grain foods may reduce the risk of heart disease and some forms of cancers." This is found on whole-grain products that contain at least 51% whole-grain flour (by weight) and are low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol.
General Mills and the Whole Grains Council have submitted a petition to the FDA to require consistency in labeling of whole grains. These groups are suggesting that a whole-grain stamp be placed on products that provide either "good" servings (8-15 grams of whole grain) or "excellent" servings (16 or more grams of whole grain). The whole-grain stamp is already showing up on packages, making it easy to select whole-grain products. Eat three "excellent" or six "good" servings daily to meet national guidelines.
Making smart carbohydrate choices is an easy way to add a layer of health insurance to your life. Whole grains are packed with many healthy nutrients, including carbohydrates, protein, fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, vitamin E, and trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper and magnesium).
Research demonstrating the health benefits of whole grains is the backbone of health recommendations. A diet rich in whole grains has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and some forms of cancer. Whole-grain diets also improve bowel health; they help maintain regular bowel movements and promote growth of healthy bacteria in the colon.
Just because a product is made from whole grain does not suggest that it is nutritious. Sugared cereals made with whole grain are not suddenly considered health food.
"Consumers need to read the label and select cereals based on the whole-grain content and amount of sugar it contains. The less sugar, the better," says whole-grain expert Joanne Slavin, PhD, RD, professor of food science and nutrition from the University of Minnesota. "Less dense products such as puffed or flaked cereal are lighter by nature and will have less fiber than denser cereals."
Whole grains can be an excellent source of fiber. But not all whole grains are good sources of fiber. Whole wheat contains the highest amount of fiber of the whole grains. Brown rice contains the least amount of fiber.