Nutrition Articles

Whole Grains are the Whole Package

These Natural Grains Pack a Nutritional Punch

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Health experts agree that we need to eat more whole grains for optimal health. But most people don’t know what whole grains are. They have been shown to reduce the risks of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and obesity, but knowing the health benefits doesn't help you find them in your local grocery store or learn how to cook with them.

The Definition of Whole Grain
Every grain starts as a whole grain when it grows from the earth. This whole grain (actually the seed or kernel of the plant) has three parts: the bran, the germ and the endosperm.
  1. The bran is the outer skin of the seed that contains antioxidants, B vitamins and fiber. (You may have heard of wheat bran or oat bran, which are available in stores and are common ingredients in certain cereals.)
  2. The germ is the “baby” of the seed, which grows into a new plant when pollinated. It contains many vitamins, along with protein, minerals and healthy fats. (You may have seen jars of toasted wheat germ in stores, which can be added to a variety of foods to boost nutritional content.)
  3. The endosperm is the seed’s food supply that provides the energy needed for the young plant to grow. The largest portion of the seed contains carbohydrates, and smaller amounts of protein, vitamins and minerals.
So a whole grain is one that contains all three parts of the kernel.

When grains are processed and refined (the most common practice for making breads, cereals, pastas and flours), the bran and germ are removed, leaving behind the white endosperm. During this process, grains become less nutritious, losing 25% of their original protein content and 17 other essential nutrients. While manufacturers then "enrich" the flour with some vitamins and minerals, a naturally whole grain is still a healthier choice. Compared to refined grains (white bread, white rice, white flour), whole grains pack more protein, fiber, vitamins (B vitamins and vitamin E), and minerals (magnesium and iron), as well as some antioxidants not found in other foods.

Types of Whole Grains
Common types of whole grains include:
  • Wild rice, which is actually a seed
  • Brown rice
  • Whole wheat
  • Oatmeal and whole oats
  • Barley
  • Whole rye
  • Bulgur
  • Popcorn
Less common types include: amaranth, millet, quinoa, sorghum and triticale (a hybrid of rye and wheat).

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About The Author

Leanne Beattie Leanne Beattie
A freelance writer, marketing consultant and life coach, Leanne often writes about health and nutrition. See all of Leanne's articles.

Member Comments

  • Thank you for the article. Since I started using SparkPeople, I have made an effort to make sure I am having my healthy grains in most of all my meals. - 8/13/2014 1:36:08 PM
  • I am newly diagnosed with pre-diabetes. Both my grandmothers and my father were diabetic. My husband's mother was severely afflicted with diabetes and I saw the effects of that. I have a couple brothers who are diabetic. I do not want to get there. I have just started a diabetes prevention program through our local YMCA. I do not want to become a diabetic. - 2/3/2014 4:49:32 PM
  • TIGEREYES2
    I'm a newly diagnosed diabetic type 2 and also have NAFL, I am very confused as to what I should be to eating. I have been told to eliminate wheat and to go on a lchf way of life. Any light on this subject would be greatly appreciated. I have read the Wheat Belly and have the cookbook. I think I have a good start, but meal planning is difficult. - 1/25/2014 10:01:13 PM
  • @Mindhorizon, I agree that most people in the USA eat too many grains. I do not agree with all of your statements though. Especially ludicrous is your statement that most of the nutrition in grains is better supplied by meat! Actually, meat and grains have completely different nutritional profiles. Eating meat instead of grain is swapping out one form of junk food for another. You do realize that meat eaters have far higher rates of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease than vegetarians?! Phytic acid--- there are tips online about how to prepare whole grains traditionally that neutralize phytic acid. This may be worth looking into for those not willing to completely give up grains. As far as the paleo arguments about what our ancestors did / did not eat 10,000 years ago, it can easily be proven that most foods, including fruits and vegetables, are not of the same varietals as what was eaten long ago. It is not just grains! Meats are also drastically different with animals today receiving huge doses of antibiotics (contributing to antibiotic resistance in humans who consume them) and hormones to reach unnatural sizes + they are confined to tiny spaces and don't get the amount of exercise animals in the wild would get. Plus, animals eat all of these grains you are trying to avoid. Another point, 10,000 yrs ago, there was not one monolithic diet that everybody ate. What one ate depended greatly on location. Not everything is as cut-and-dried as proponents of certain diets want to make it sound. Bottom line: we all have different genetics and must experiment to see what foods we do best on. Elimination diets can help identify allergens we are sensitive too. I do better on fewer grains, but my husband can eat 6 donuts and a loaf of bread and maintain single digit body fat and a completely flat, hard stomach at age 53. He is on the low end of optimal BMI, just like in high school, and has categorically never needed to lose a single pound at any point in his life. Life is clearly not fair. - 1/3/2014 11:37:24 AM
  • WHITE FLOUR IS REFINED WHEAT FLOUR

    @Surigood, eating white pasta and bread is NOT an improvement over eating whole grain versions. Do you realize that WHITE FLOUR IS REFINED WHEAT FLOUR in the 1st place?! Look at the label!!! Not only that, but white pastas and breads spike insulin causing rebound hunger. If you are sensitive to gluten, it is best to avoid or cut way back on ALL gluten containing grains.

    WHITE FLOUR IS REFINED WHEAT FLOUR
    WHITE FLOUR IS REFINED WHEAT FLOUR
    WHITE FLOUR IS REFINED WHEAT FLOUR - 1/3/2014 11:04:53 AM
  • does this mean i have to give up my ezekiel bread now - 1/18/2013 2:03:15 PM
  • 1954MARG
    Some people are sensitive to some things. Not everyone is. For most people the most important guide to having a healthy diet is having plenty of variety of foods and not too much of any one thing. - 5/28/2012 8:52:19 AM
  • Whole grains are good for you. Some folks read a book and trust the words as fact. The body needs what grain offers and whole grains are better than processed. - 3/11/2012 12:04:46 PM
  • WooHOO! I was all set to be the lone voice in my Anit-wheat, anti-gluten, anti-high Gi carbs, so I'm very pleased to see I'm not alone. Spark People nutritionists, please read cardiologist Dr. William Davis' book and then see if you're still able to recommend eating wheat and ANY kind of grains to people who have high cholesterol, high blood sugar, arthritis, asthma, obesity, blood sugar issues, IBS, skin issues, thyroid disease and hair loss. I stopped eating wheat even before I read the book because my husband was reading some of it aloud to me. For the first time in 20 years I am completely free of daily hypoglycemic episodes. I've lost 22 lbs in 5 weeks. I used to have unbelievable cravings for carbs in the evening. I now have 0 zero zip zilch. I am full and satisfied with small, very low carb meals. My joints no longer hurt. I've had problems with constipation my entire life. My bowels are now functioning perfectly. I have more energy than I've ever had before in my life. And if you want to read about the amazing benefits other people have experienced by removing wheat from their diets, have a look at the Success Stories on the blog for the book. http://www.wheatb
    ellyblog.com - 2/27/2012 1:12:46 PM
  • Confused now by artilcle and some people's responses. Are grains/whole wheat good for you or not? - 12/7/2011 1:22:31 PM
  • SURIGOOD
    I've always heard that whole grains were the best way to boost fiber onto your diet, but, a few days I heard a nutritionist saying it wasn't the best option to eat whole wheat foods if you want to loose tummy. By now, sometimes I do eat whole wheat bread, but when it comes to rice, pasta and cakes &cookies, I keep it white or just add a little whole wheat flour, but nothing special. - 11/12/2011 3:17:21 PM
  • I looked at 'wheat belly' on my iPad and after reading the first chapter bought it. OMG. A must have book for those on a journey for health and wellness. The best part...a cheesecake recipe my favorite. I have been on a low carb, gluten free path for 3 years now. Migraines...GONE, IBS...gone also. I weigh below what the Dr. Jim considers healthy...125lbs and I am 5'8". My weight is 10 lbs lighter than when I got married 26 years ago. My working goal is tapering off of big pharm.'s answer to depression and already off off cholesterol pills. 2012 is the year I'm going to make it happen!
    - 11/11/2011 4:18:55 PM
  • I was so happy to see so many knowledgable comments about the misinformation we have been receiving about wheat. Having lost 127 pounds (the "old fashion" way), I have made a lot of changes. BY FAR, one of the best changes I've made is wheat elimination. My weightloss has stopped completely until I cut it out. I still eat the same amount of calories but I'm losing again AND I'm barely ever hungry anymore. Which is HUGE because I spent the first 30+ years of my life CONSTANTLY hungry!
    - 11/11/2011 2:03:05 PM
  • CMWARNICK
    This article got me all wound up, but I see I'm not the only one against "healthy whole grains". Why We Get Fat and Wheat Belly ought to be mandatory reading for anyone trying to preach 'health and wellness'. Drop the grains and see how quickly you lose weight and whole variety of health issues. - 11/11/2011 1:38:24 PM
  • BRUCETN
    I wonder how "whole" whole grain products really are. I understand brown sugar is fully refined to white sugar, and then some molasses added back. I have found the grocery store "whole wheat" flour makes better bread on the white setting than on the whole wheat setting, leaving me wondering if a process similar to brown sugar is being used Fully refine the flour to white flour, and then add back some bran and germ. (on whole wheat setting looks like too long rising time)

    Grocery store whole gran flours are not in sealed packages (vac pack), never indicate on the package that the flour needs to be refrigerated, yet wheat germ must be refrigerated to prevent the oil in it from going rancid. Perhaps the germ does not make it back into the flour?

    On the other hand, the flour I purchase as "stone ground whole wheat flour" (sgwwf)does work well on the whole wheat setting. Just using the sgwwf makes a heavy loaf, adding gluten flour makes it lighter.

    So, back to my point: What does "whole grain" mean? - 11/11/2011 1:01:41 PM