Carbs get a bad rep. But daily consumption of whole grains, for most people, is a smart move, in terms of better overall health. Studies suggest whole grains can lower your risk of colorectal cancer, reduce your chances of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, keep your weight in check, help you feel fuller longer, and improve both inflammation and cholesterol. Lucky for you, our experts are here to help decode grains as a whole, so you know what to eat to best nourish your body and stay committed to your workouts.
What’s the difference between whole and refined grains?
Whole grains are the way to go in terms of nutrition, says registered dietitian Taylor Wolfram, MS, RDN, LDN. “There are whole grains, which means the entire grain kernel, including the bran, endosperm and germ, is intact. The bran contains the majority of the fiber. The germ contains the majority of the fat, vitamins, and minerals. Refined grains have undergone processing to remove the bran and the germ, leaving just the starchy endosperm. This also helps increase shelf-life, create finer texture, and enhance palatability,” Wolfram adds.
“Whole grains have three to five times the vitamins and minerals found in refined grains,” explains Becky Kerkenbush, clinical nutritionist and registered dietitian at Watertown Regional Medical Center. “This includes B vitamins (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, and folate); minerals like iron, magnesium, manganese, and selenium; and antioxidants and phytochemicals,” Kerkenbush states.
In contrast, try to avoid eating refined grains on the regular. These include sugary cereals, cakes, desserts made with white flour, white breads, and pasta. “Most commercial flours aren’t whole grain, because removing the bran and germ leaves it softer and fluffier,” notes nutritionist Lauren O’Connor, MS, RDN, RYT. “However, you can buy a finely milled flour that is 100% whole grain,” she suggests.
Do certain grains pack a bigger nutritional punch?
O’Connor says any product that is whole grain and contains 100% whole grain or has 3g of fiber or more, serves as your ideal choice. “Some tout quinoa as a complete protein. However, no one grain needs to be a superstar,” says O’Connor. “Getting a variety of whole grains provides you with the utmost in nutrition. Plant foods have varying types and amounts of nutrients. Keep it colorful. Try buckwheat, red quinoa, and black rice, as a variety for white/beige/light brown whole grain foods.”
And as a tip, Wolfram recommends hitting up the bulk bins at your local market to experiment with different whole grains. She advises adding the ones you like into your regular meal rotation.
If I’m gluten-free, do I avoid grains?
Absolutely not, according to these experts, unless you’re already sensitive to gluten or have celiac disease. “Gluten is in wheat, rye, and barley,” says Wolfram. “Due to how they are processed, it is advisable for those with celiac disease to steer clear of oats unless labeled gluten-free. There are loads of delicious whole grains that are naturally gluten-free, including brown rice, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, teff, and sorghum.”
Other gluten-free options include corn (including whole cornmeal and popcorn), which Kerkenbush says has almost twice the antioxidant activity of apples—plus quinoa and wild rice.
What healthy grain swaps are easy to make?
“You can swap in a whole grain wherever you’d use a refined grain,” says Wolfram. “Brown rice for white rice, whole-grain pasta for white pasta, whole-grain bread for white bread, whole-grain flour for all-purpose flour, etc. Consider trying a grain that is new to your family, such as farro, when substituting whole grains,” she recommends.
“You may find gluten-free pastas to swap out semolina (a wheat product),” says O’Connor. “These are typically made with rice, corn, and/or quinoa, or some sort of legume in the mix. You can also substitute couscous (a wheat product) for quinoa.”
How do whole grains impact my workouts?
Grains are an “excellent source of carbohydrate, which fuels our bodies when we exercise,”says Wolfram. Most people rely on them for energy. Do what’s best for your established exercise routine, says O’Connor. This can vary through trial and error.
“I personally find a small amount of a grain dish (i.e. oatmeal) before exercise is okay, just as long as I waited at least a half hour after my breakfast,” she notes. “Depending on the individual and form of exercise, food intake before exercise can be limiting (digestive issues) or can help boost energy. I generally stick to something small and simple; and refuel after exercise. For example, I don’t eat prior to yoga practice, especially if I’m doing an inversion (handstand, headstand, etc) or heavy twisting poses.”
How many whole grains do I really need to eat per day?
Kerkenbush recommends sticking to at least three servings of whole grains per day, which is in line with national recommendations, and Wolfram echoes that approach.
“There is no reason to cut grains out of your diet. They deliver essential nutrients and help balance out meals,” says Wolfram. “If you’re trying to limit processed foods, focus on whole grains that you cook from scratch. Try to make at least half of the grains you eat whole grains—at least three ounces of whole grains per day for adults.”