You know that you’re supposed to eat whole grains, but many people just don’t like whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat bread or whole-wheat anything. To make sure you’re eating enough whole grains, offer your taste buds more variety.

Here’s what some recent studies found…

  • People who ate three or more servings of whole grains and less than one serving of refined grains (white bread, cookies, etc.) daily averaged 10% less belly fat—linked to cardiovascular disease and diabetes—compared with people who ate the fewest whole grains and the most refined grains.
  • People who consumed the most fiber, primarily from whole grains, were 22% less likely to die during a nine-year study than those who ate the least fiber. Fiber’s protective effect was particularly pronounced in women.
  • Two recent analyses from John Hopkins showed that those eating the most dietary fiber had a lower risk for death from any cause than those eating the least. For every additional 10 grams of dietary fiber, there was a 10% reduction in risk for death from any cause.
  • In a Harvard study, compared with people who rarely ate whole grains, those who ate the equivalent of one bowl of oatmeal daily had a 9% reduced risk for early death…and for each additional daily ounce of whole grains, that risk was reduced by another 5%.

Problem is, fewer than 5% of Americans consume the USDA-recommended minimum of about three ounces of whole grains per day. What’s the big deal? Whole grain contains the entire edible part of a grain (a.k.a., “seed”)—including the germ (technically the sprout of a new plant)… endosperm (the seed’s energy storehouse)… and nutrient-rich bran (the seed’s outer layer). Refined grains, on the other hand, are stripped of their bran and germ layers during milling.

Julie Miller Jones, PhD, CNS, LN, professor emerita of nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, points out that enriched refined grains can have a place in a healthy diet—minerals contained in the grains can be better absorbed from an enriched product than one with a lot of fiber and bran. And if a whole-grain pasta or bread that is partly enriched refined grains is more appealing, at least it gets you to eat some whole grains. But, she adds, the greater the variety of whole grains you eat, the better. “Each whole grain brings different nutrients, fibers and phytonutrients to the table, so it is worth exploring and enjoying various types,” she explained.

Lesser known but delicious whole grains can be found in supermarkets, health-food stores and online. Check out these…

Amaranth provides protein, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium and many other nutrients. It’s also free of gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley that can cause digestive upset in some people. When cooked, amaranth is pleasantly sticky and mild tasting. To cook: Boil one cup of amaranth grains in two-and-a-half cups of water or broth for 20 minutes or until tender. If desired, season with herbs, pepper and a bit of olive oil. Or use milk as part of the cooking liquid and add sweet spices, such as cinnamon and cardamom, Dr. Jones suggested. Also try amaranth flakes as a breakfast cereal… amaranth crackers… and amaranth flour, swapping it for one-third of a recipe’s white flour.

Buckwheat, a gluten-free grain, offers plenty of protein… the heart-healthy flavonoid rutin… plus bone-building magnesium and other minerals. It is strongly flavored, so Dr. Jones suggested serving it as a side dish paired with robust entrées, such as those made with red wine or balsamic vinegar. Cook the hulled, crushed kernels by simmering one cup of buckwheat in two cups of water for about 10 to 15 minutes (avoid overcooking so it doesn’t become mushy)… then flavor with onions, mushrooms and whatever else you like.

Kamut, the brand name for an ancient relative of wheat, provides protein, fiber, vitamin A, iron and zinc (it does contain gluten). With their nutty, buttery taste, kamut kernels make a great substitute for rice in recipes. Note that the cooking time is around 90 minutes… or you can soak the kernels overnight to reduce cooking time to about 30 minutes. Kamut flour can be used to bake bread, tortillas, cookies and more. Recipes:

Quinoa is a tiny gluten-free grain rich in essential amino acids (protein building blocks that our bodies must get from dietary sources) as well as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and protein. To cook: Simmer one cup of quinoa and two cups of water or broth for 15 minutes or until water is absorbed. Add cooked quinoa to omelets or soups… or combine with vegetables, nuts and spices for a tasty side dish.

White whole wheat is an unrefined variety of wheat with a light-colored kernel. It has a lower gluten content than the red wheat used to make regular whole-wheat flour, so it produces foods with a softer texture and sweeter flavor, Dr. Jones explained. It provides nutrient and fiber content similar to that of regular whole wheat, though it is lower in some antioxidants (which accounts for its lighter color). In recipes: Substitute white whole-wheat flour for half of the refined flour or for all of the regular whole-wheat flour.

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