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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.

Eating more whole grains is an easy way to make your diet healthier. Whole grains are packed with nutrients including protein, fiber, B vitamins, antioxidants, and trace minerals (iron, zinc, copper, and magnesium). 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 can also improve bowel health by helping to maintain regular bowel movements and promote growth of healthy bacteria in the colon.

Yet the average American eats less than one serving per day, and over 40% never eat whole grains at all. Young adults get less than one serving daily.

Why? For one thing, it's not always easy to tell just which foods are whole-grain. Scan the bread, cereal or snack packaging, and virtually every one promotes its whole-grain goodness. But not all of them actually are whole-grain. Terms like "multigrain," "100% wheat," "cracked wheat," "organic," "pumpernickel," "bran," and "stone ground" may sound healthy, but none actually indicates the product is whole-grain.

Also, many people have the perception that whole grains just don't taste good, or that it's difficult to work them into their daily diets.

To help you start reaping the benefits of a diet rich in whole grains, WebMD got the facts on how to tell which foods are made of 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 supermarket and choose any of the following grains:

  •     Whole-grain corn
  •     Whole oats/oatmeal
  •     Popcorn
  •     Brown rice
  •     Whole rye
  •     Whole-grain barley
  •     Wild rice
  •     Buckwheat
  •     Triticale
  •     Bulgur (cracked wheat)
  •     Millet
  •     Quinoa
  •     Sorghum
  •     100% whole wheat flour

But what about when you're buying processed products, such as a loaf of bread? You probably know to avoid products made of "refined" wheat. But did you know that 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.

That's why it's important to check the ingredients list for the word "whole" preceding the grain (such as "whole wheat flour"). Ideally, the whole grain will be the first ingredient in the list, indicating that the product contains more whole grain than any other ingredient by weight.

The amount of grains you need daily varies based on your age, sex, and physical activity level, but to keep it simple, the 2010 USDA Dietary Guidelines say whole grains should make up half of your grain intake.

More Whole-Grain Products

The good news is that whole grains are not necessarily brown, or multigrain, or only found in adult cereals. You can find them throughout the food supply, including many processed foods.

Recently, there has been an increase in whole-grain options in products ranging from pastas to most cereals. Even many restaurants now offer brown rice and other whole-grain options.

For whole-grain nutrition without the "grainy" taste, there are newly reformulated products that use lighter whole wheats and new processing techniques to make them look and taste more like white flour.

These "white whole-grain" products are a great way to transition into eating more whole grains, particularly if your children are turning their noses up at them or will only eat white bread.

Whole Grains and Fiber

Whole grains can be an excellent source of fiber. But not all whole grains are good sources of fiber. Whole wheat contains among the highest amount of fiber of the whole grains. Brown rice contains the least.

For most people, whole grains are their diet's best source of fiber.

Most whole-grain sources yield from 1 to 4 g of fiber per serving, comparable to fruit and vegetables, and just the right amount when spread throughout the day.

Can fiber supplements give you the same benefit? While you get plenty of fiber from these supplements, you'll miss out on all the other nutritional benefits of whole grains.

However, if you know you're not getting at least 25 g of fiber per day, fiber supplements are a great way to help you get there. Women need 25 g per day, while men should get about 38 g per day.

8 Easy Ways to Get More Whole Grains Into Your Diet

Learning to enjoy whole grains is simply a matter of retraining your taste buds to become familiar with the fuller, nuttier flavor of the grain, experts say.

Whole grains taste and feel different to the mouth, and therefore it takes time to adjust to these new grains.

Here are eight easy ways to work more whole grains into your daily diet:

  1. Choose whole-grain breads, cereals, bagels, and crackers. Enjoy a sandwich at lunch with two slices of whole meal, granary, wheat germ, multigrain, seeded or mixed grain bread; or a whole wheat pita or wrap, and you're two-thirds of the way towards meeting your goal.
  2. Eat popcorn. What could be easier than eating air-popped or low-fat popcorn as a snack?  Just don’t choose pre-popped corn smothered in fat, sugar or salt.
  3. Make your snacks whole grain. Snacks account for one-third of whole-grain consumption -- just make sure you choose the right ones. Try rye crackers, whole-grain rice cakes, and oatcakes. Check the label, because even though it is made with a whole grain, it could still be high in fat, calories, and sodium.
  4. Start your day with a bowl of whole-grain cereal. But bear in mind that even when a product is made from whole grain, it's not necessarily healthy. Read the label and select cereal based on the whole-grain and fiber content -- and remember, the less sugar, the better.
  5. Add whole grains to your cakes, pastries and pies. Dietitian Elaine Magee likes to blend half whole-meal flour with all-purpose flour to boost the whole-grain content of her baking. Another baking option to boost whole grains is to replace one-third of the flour with whole-grain oats.
  6. Choose brown rice and whole wheat or blended pasta. Cook a batch of brown rice and freeze in portions or keep in the fridge for 4 to 5 days. When time is an issue, there are great ready-to-use brown rice products. Try whole-grain pasta or  blended pastas made with a mix of whole and refined grains. Don't be put off by the dark color of whole-grain pasta. It becomes much lighter when it is cooked.
  7. Experiment with different grains. Try your hand at some of the less familiar whole grains available. Try risottos, pilafs, whole-grain salads, and other grain dishes made with barley, brown rice, millet, quinoa, or sorghum, Magee suggests. Add barley to canned soup, and then boil to cook the barley. Stir oats into yogurt for crunch and added nutrition. Make a whole-grain medley with quinoa and sautéed vegetables for a nutritious side dish.

Help your children eat healthfully: Start off young children with a diet of whole grains. For older children, try the white whole wheat flour, and incorporate whole grains into foods that have other flavors: burgers with whole-grain buns, brown rice medley with vegetables, soups, and whole wheat pitas as crusts for make-your-own individual pizzas.

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