Going With the (Whole) Grain

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Grains provide many nutrients that are vital for the health and maintenance of your body. But not all grains and grain products are equally nutritious. Whole grains and grain products contain all of the parts of the grain — including the germ, the bran, and the endosperm — and are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (chemicals or nutrients derived from a plant source). Refined grains, such as white flour and white rice, are stripped of the bran and germ parts of the grain, which reduces the amount of fiber, antioxidants, and other nutrients in the grain.

The amount of grains you need for good health depends on your age, sex, and level of physical activity. While most Americans consume enough total grains on a daily basis, most of those grain servings are refined grains, and very few are whole grains. The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, an organization of the U.S. Department of Agriculture established in 1994 to improve the nutrition and well-being of Americans, recommends making at least half of your grain choices whole. For most adults, that means consuming at least three servings of a cooked whole grain or whole grain bread, cereal, crackers, or pasta every day. In general, a serving of whole grains is about ½ cup of cooked cereal or grain, 1 slice of whole-grain bread, or 1 cup of whole-grain cold breakfast cereal. (For more on serving sizes, see “What Counts as an Ounce?”)


Whole grains naturally provide a number of nutrients, including dietary fiber, several B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folate), and minerals (iron, magnesium, and selenium). Refined grain products are often enriched with B vitamins and iron after processing, but they tend to provide significantly less fiber than whole grains.

Whole grains that contain soluble fiber, such as oats and barley, can help lower blood cholesterol levels when eaten in adequate amounts. They may therefore prevent plaque buildup in the arteries, and may lower the risk of heart disease.

Insoluble fiber, which is found in large amounts in whole wheat products, can help prevent constipation and diverticulosis, a condition in which there are small pouches in the colon that bulge outward. While diverticulosis itself may cause no symptoms, if the pouches become infected or inflamed, a condition called diverticulitis, a person will feel pain, and medical intervention is necessary. Diverticulosis is thought to be caused by increased pressure within the colon, which is often a result of chronic constipation.

Fiber-containing foods such as whole grains also help provide a feeling of fullness when eating, perhaps leading to a decrease in calorie intake.

The B vitamins play a key role in metabolism: They help the body use the energy it gets from protein, fat, and carbohydrate. B vitamins are also essential for a healthy nervous system. Many refined grains are enriched with thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and folic acid, the synthetic form of folate that is found in supplements and added to foods. In fact, in the United States, manufacturers of enriched breads, flours, corn meals, pastas, rice, and other grain products have been required to add folic acid to their products since 1998.

Folate helps the body form red blood cells. Women of childbearing age who may become pregnant and those in the first trimester of pregnancy are advised to consume adequate folate to reduce their chances of having a baby with a type of birth defect known as a neural tube defect, which includes spina bifida and anencephaly. For many women, consuming folic acid in fortified foods or supplements—in addition to consuming folate-rich foods—is necessary to get enough.

Iron is an essential part of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood to all of the cells in the body. Iron comes from both animal foods (called heme iron) and plant foods (called non-heme iron). Heme iron is more readily absorbed by the body, but absorption of non-heme iron can be enhanced by eating foods rich in vitamin C along with foods rich in non-heme iron. Whole and enriched refined grain products are major sources of non-heme iron in American diets.

Consuming inadequate iron can lead to iron-deficiency anemia, which causes fatigue and weakness. Many teenage girls and women in their childbearing years could benefit from eating more good food sources of iron. Two ways to absorb more iron from whole grains are to eat them with meat and to eat them with foods rich in vitamin C, such as bell peppers, cantaloupe, broccoli, or citrus fruits.

Whole grains are sources of magnesium and selenium. Magnesium is a mineral used in building bones and releasing energy from muscles. Selenium protects cells from oxidation. It is also important for a healthy immune system.

Reading labels

To be sure the products you are buying contain whole grains, take some time to read their labels carefully. If the package displays the words “whole grain,” it must contain at least 8 grams of whole grain per serving, which is considered half a serving of whole grains. If a product label says “100% whole grain,” it must contain at least 16 grams of whole grain per serving, which is one serving of whole grains.

Foods that are labeled with the words “multi-grain,” “stone-ground,” “100% wheat,” “cracked wheat,” “seven-grain,” or “bran” are usually not whole-grain products. If a whole-grain ingredient is not listed first on a product’s ingredients list, the item may contain only a small amount of whole grains or none at all.

Don’t let the color of an item fool you. Just because a grain product is brown doesn’t mean it is made from whole grains. Ingredients such as molasses can be added to darken products that are made from primarily refined grains. It is best to check the ingredients list to see if a food item contains whole grains. Also check the % Daily Value (%DV) for fiber on the Nutrition Facts panel of the label. The higher the %DV for fiber, the greater the likelihood that there’s whole grain in the product.

By law, ingredients lists must list ingredients in descending order by weight. That’s to say, the first ingredient in the list is the one the product contains most of, and the last ingredient in the list is the one the product contains least of. As you read the ingredients list, therefore, note where added sugars such as sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, and molasses fall in the list. The closer they are to the beginning of the list, the more calories from sugar a food contains and the greater the chance the food is made primarily of refined ingredients. For a list of grains and grain products to keep an eye out for, see “Identifying Whole Grains.”

Whole-grain “stamps” of approval

One way to confirm that a food item contains whole grain—and to determine how much—is to look for the Whole Grains Council stamp of approval. The Whole Grains Council, which is backed by the Food and Drug Administration, has designed two logos, both of which resemble postage stamps, to identify foods that have a particular amount of whole grains in them.

One of the logos is for foods labeled “whole grain,” and it indicates that the food contains at least 8 grams of whole grains per serving. The other is for foods labeled “100% whole grain,” and it indicates that the food contains only whole grains and has at least 16 grams or more per serving.

Both logos include the Whole Grains Council message, which is “Eat 48 grams or more of whole grains daily.” This is the amount of whole grains in the three servings generally recommended for the adult population.

For a product to use the stamp of approval, the company must be a member of the Whole Grains Council and must file information about each qualifying product with the council. Companies also sign a legal agreement stating that they will abide by all rules and guidelines of the Stamp program. So the Stamp logo can be a reliable source to help you find legitimate whole-grain products. A product could still contain 50% to 100% whole grains without the Whole Grain Council logo, but it can be difficult to be sure. If you don’t see the logo, you will need to rely on the descriptive words on the package as well as the ingredients list and the amount of fiber listed in the Nutrition Facts panel.

Grains and diabetes control

Most of the calories in grains come from carbohydrate, and carbohydrate is the type of nutrient that affects blood glucose level the most after meals. For that reason, people with diabetes are advised to monitor their carbohydrate intake and to match the amount of carbohydrate they eat with the amount of insulin they take before meals or the amount of insulin their pancreas can secrete. For a person with Type 2 diabetes, high blood glucose levels after a meal may indicate that the meal contained more carbohydrate than the pancreas could handle. Changes in either food choices or medication may be in order to maintain blood glucose control.

Most nutrition experts agree that including carbohydrate-containing foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat
milk in a diabetes meal plan is good for both good health and effective diabetes management. Such foods are important sources of energy, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Choosing whole grains over refined grains may help with blood glucose control since the soluble fiber found in some grains slows digestion, and any kind of fiber helps to fill you up, so you may consume fewer calories overall.

For suggestions on including more whole grains in your meals, see “Adding Whole Grains to Your Menus.” In addition, consider meeting with a registered dietitian, ideally one that specializes in diabetes, to help you better understand healthy grain choices, the impact of your choices on blood glucose control, as well as overall healthy meal-planning for your best possible blood glucose control and diabetes health.

Grain benefits

People who include whole grains in their daily meals have been found to have a reduced risk of some chronic diseases, including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. But even if you already have Type 2 diabetes, consuming at least three servings of whole grains daily may help you with weight management and reduce the likelihood of constipation. For women planning a pregnancy, eating grains fortified with folic acid before as well as during pregnancy helps prevent neural tube defects in the fetus during development. Why not go with the whole grain? You and your health will only benefit.

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