Make it grain! Which whole grain is healthiest?
With low-carb diets currently in vogue, we often see grains get unfairly maligned. Sure, you should definitely watch your intake of refined grains and white flour – but whole grains are a crucial and super-healthy part of any diet. Loaded with fibre, surprisingly high in protein and packed with vitamins, minerals and nutrients, whole grains can help prevent inflammation, reduce the risk of heart disease and lower “bad” LDL cholesterol – just to name a few of their many benefits. And even if you’re gluten-intolerant, there are still some great options you can keep in your pantry.
First, we’re going to have to get a bit technical. Just what is a whole grain? When they’re grown and harvested, all grains have three essential parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm, each with its own benefits and nutrients. The bran is the outer layer of the grain, rich in fibre, antioxidants, B vitamins and minerals. Next up, the germ is the core of the seed, and it’s loaded with healthy fats, vitamin E, phytochemicals and more antioxidants. Finally, the endosperm is the interior layer of the grain, and it’s the main source of carbohydrates and protein.
Whole grains are just that – grains where all three components are left intact. When whole grains are milled, the bran and germ are stripped away, leaving only the endosperm. With the reduced fat content from removing the germ, refined grains have a longer shelf life, and without the fibre-rich bran, they make for fluffy flour that’s easier to work with…but the fact remains, they are much lower in nutritional benefits. Even if they’re “fortified” with additional vitamins and minerals after milling, refined flours fall way short of their original, whole grain format.
The difference between whole and refined grains couldn’t be more important. Right now, most people are actually exceeding the recommended intake for total grains, without coming close to meeting the minimum serving of whole grains. So if you want to get all the benefits whole grains have to offer, you might want to swap out your white bread, white rice, pasta and all-purpose flour for some of these…
First up, oats! Admittedly they’re not the sexiest grain around, but oats might just be one of the healthiest. Higher in dietary fibre than most other cereal grains, oats are great for lowering cholesterol and maintaining digestive health. That fibre also improves satiety, keeping you feeling fuller, longer – and less likely to reach for a snack between meals. Not to mention oats can help lower blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity. Oatmeal for breakfast, anyone?
As far as grains go, wheat probably gets the worst rap, thanks to the popularity of gluten-free diets – and the host of unhealthy foods made from refined wheat flour. That said, whole wheat is actually a super-nutritious ingredient. Low in fat, high in complex carbohydrates and packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals, whole wheat is surprisingly filled with benefits. Just make sure you seek out the whole grain – as in wheat berries, cracked wheat and whole wheat flour – and you’ll be getting all the nutrition this grain has to offer.
Believe it or not, quinoa is not actually a grain, per se. It’s a seed that is prepared and eaten like a grain, otherwise known as a “pseudo-cereal.” But don’t let that dissuade you from incorporating it into your diet – as this powerhouse ingredient is actually higher in nutrients than most other whole grains (and, bonus! It’s gluten-free). Cooked quinoa is higher in fibre than brown rice or yellow corn, and much higher in protein than most cereal grains. It’s also a “complete” source of plant-based protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids. Plus, quinoa is packed with antioxidants and minerals such as magnesium, iron and zinc. It’s the total package, baby.
One of the less common grains around, amaranth is definitely poised for a comeback. Unlike most grains, it’s high in lysine, an essential amino acid. So, like quinoa, amaranth is a complete protein. Compared to 13 grams of protein per cup in white rice, amaranth gives you about 26 grams. Not too shabby! A cup of amaranth will also deliver 31% of your recommended daily calcium and 82% of your daily iron (!), making it a great option for people following plant-based diets. And like all whole grains, amaranth is a fantastic source of fibre, vitamins and minerals. Why not give this unusual grain a try?
Isn’t corn a vegetable? Well, yes and no. When you eat it fresh off the cob, corn does qualify as a vegetable. But, once it’s dried and ground into cornmeal or corn flour – or popped into popcorn – corn is actually considered a whole grain! And it’s one whole grain you definitely shouldn’t ignore. Corn is a great source of potassium, which is said to help lower blood pressure, and it’s a better source of antioxidants than wheat, rice or oats. It’s especially high in carotenoids, the antioxidants that help keep your eyes healthy. And naturally, corn is high in fibre. Time to dig up that cornbread recipe!
Unlike most other whole grains, brown rice has been slightly processed – just to remove the hard, inedible hull, but leaving the bran, germ and endosperm intact. So what’s this grain’s claim to fame? A little-known mineral called manganese, which it vital to bone development, nerve function and wound healing. And from just one cup of brown rice, you’ll get all the manganese you need for the day! But that’s not all. Brown rice is also packed with antioxidants, fibre and so much more. Rice to meet you…
What’s in a name? Gluten-free buckwheat is not actually related to wheat in any way. In fact, buckwheat isn’t technically a grain at all – it’s a relative of leafy plants like rhubarb and sorrel. But with its high protein and fibre content, this grain-like ingredient is a pantry must-have. It’s also a great source of iron and magnesium, and comes with a nice dose of the B vitamin niacin, just to name a few more benefits. So find yourself a bag of buckwheat flour and try making buckwheat pancakes this weekend. We promise you won’t regret it!
While it’s become less ubiquitous in the last century or so, this once-popular grain deserves a little love. High in potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium, barley is a great option for decreasing blood pressure and maintaining healthy bones. It’s also an excellent source of fibre, helping lower bad LDL cholesterol and promoting overall heart health. So how do you eat it? The most popular way is just to add barley to your favourite soup and let it simmer until soft. And since we’re in the middle of soup season…no excuses!
Finally, we turn to farro – an ancient grain in the midst of a well-deserved comeback. Packed with fibre, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, this pleasantly nutty grain has got it all. It’s a great source of zinc, which is essential for your immune system health, and vitamin B3 – which keeps your hair, skin and eyes nice and healthy. And just one cup of farro gives you 20% of your daily fibre needs. Plus, it’s a complete protein source, which is great news for vegetarians and omnivores alike.
Ready to work more whole grains into your diet? With health benefits like these, you definitely owe it to yourself to try. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Swap out white rice for brown rice or another grain
- Add cooked grains to your favourite soup or salad
- Replace part or all of the flour in your favourite baking recipes with whole wheat
- Instead of white toast, try whipping up steel-cut oats for breakfast
- Look for whole grain breads and pastas. There are some great options out there!
Did we miss your favourite grain? We want to hear about it! Give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now go on and make it grain!